SPU's RainWise Program Comes to Wedgwood

Most of southeast Wedgwood and portions of Bryant, View Ridge, and Hawthorne Hills is located within the City’s North Union Bay basin. An urban watershed defined by the City’s stormwater and sewage infrastructure. The basin is one of numerous Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) basins where stormwater and sewage combine and overflow (aptly named) during significant storm events. During these events, untreated stormwater and sewage from the basin outfall in Union Bay near the Center for Urban Horticulture.

As part of the City’s compliance with its National Pollution Discharge and Elimination System (NPDES) permits, the City is implementing a CSO Reduction Plan developed in 2010. This plan identifies a Priority B basin and has set a target goal of providing an additional 71,000 gallons of control.  To accomplish this, the City plans on using Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) Improvements, which includes rain gardens, bioretention swales and cisterns. One of the ways the City has helped achieve their targets is through their RainWise Program, which incentivizes home owners to disconnect their roof drains and store or infiltrate their rooftop water on site.

The gist of the RainWise Program is that the City will essentially pay for a City-approved contractor to size and construct/install a rain garden or cistern on your property if your home is in the North Union Bay basin. Rain gardens have been built all around the City and has successfully controlled millions of gallons of stormwater. A lot of attention has been paid to a couple rain gardens in Ballard that didn’t infiltrate as they were supposed to (see HERE and HERE). However, numerous successful examples of rain gardens can be seen HERE.

More information on rain gardens can be found on the 12,000 Rain Gardens Initiative website or watch the video below.  For more information on the SPU’s RainWise Program, you can email » or call (206) 633-0224.

5 Replies to “SPU's RainWise Program Comes to Wedgwood”

  1. Can’t we find ways to repurpose our history and landmarks without always destroying the character of the neighborhood? I don’t want to live in boxy modern buildings, strip mall streets… That site is a breath of fresh air in its surroundings.

    What is “environmentally sensitive” about that site?

  2. Many parts of Wedgwood have very sandy soils which make those locations a great candidate for rain gardens that capture all impervious surface run off. Follow the link to see a project I did in Wedgwood in which 100% of all roof and impervious surface water runoff was infiltrated in the new raingarden bioswales. Beautiful and effective in keeping stormwater out of our watersheds and improving Puget Sound water quality. Other homeowners could do this in their own private yards. This property was only a 6,000 SF lot. Let’s do it! Linda

  3. My wife and I live in North Ballard and in 2010 looked forward to the roadside raingardens being proposed for our neighborhood too, until the reality of muddy never-drain ponds sunk in during the winter of 2011. SPU has spun many lies about it’s failed Ballard RG’s; “they didn’t know the soils were unsuitable”, .. “the new design fixes earlier problems thanks to a responsive public outreach effort” …yada …yada.

    The truth; SPU ignored 6 deep borehole and 26 trench soils tests. All the tests they let us read said the glacial till soils in Ballard didn’t perk sufficiently. SPU ignored what they didn’t want to read or hear from residents. Just like they later ignored neighbors complaints until it ended up on local TV newscasts and in the newspapers. SPU hired PR firms and circled the dept wagons orchestrating a top-down full-court press that manipulated the “public” process. SPU controlled the entire citizens taskforce agenda, no voting only listening sessions were conducted. All participants chosen by SPU as were the solutions implemented. Standard corporate, big gov agency playbook tactics. I was there and still have the video, for the little good it did neighborhood activists involved in this issue.

    The “new improved RG design” – fill in the muddy pits with bio-soil, reduce the rainwater storage capacity to nada, call it a day. The plants get watered by road runoff but NO ACTUAL MEANINGFUL CSO DIVERSION is accomplished, though the PR mission has been accomplished !!! No muddy TV-news photo ops and only a few geeks will bother documenting that after all the public money spent for GSI there is “no there … there”, the raingardens are reduced to watered landscaping not effect GSI we wanted.

    Oh, and I haven’t mentioned that every 4 years Germany now disposes of the upper several centimeters of their roadside raingardens into toxic waste landfills due to the nasty propensity of roadside raingardens to accumulate heavy metal toxic sludge and seasonal bio-pathogens which can make people and pets sick….nice. WA DOE just released a directive to ban underdrains in raingardens because a too rapid draining of water thru the soil exacerbates the toxic sludge problem; see it doesn’t give the soil enough time to decontaminate the bad stuff in the water… except that only months of standing water in a natural marsh has the desired effect. The WA DOE directive is a PR band-aid for a GSI technology they heavily promoted and can’t now admit has a host of serious problems.

    By all means welcome roadside raingardens into the Wedgewood neighborhood and join in the public health experiment administered by SPU. Thankfully, raingardens feed by roof runoff do not suffer these maladies and so far seem on balance beneficial as long as your nearby neighbors don’t mind a little basement flooding now and again. Why do you think old-timers in Seattle hooked up their house downspouts illegally to side-sewers with the city governments tacit approval? Our Seattle glacial till soils didn’t perk then or now and the grandparents were tired of seasonal basement flooding. Put the water in a pipe and send it somewhere else away from our cracked concrete basements was their solution then, but it doesn’t have to be ours. There are solutions today better than the old or new GSI approaches, but SPU consultants aren’t paid to work on them…yet. I however do have a workable, testable plan in the works,…. stay tuned for news updates.

    1. Mark,
      I’m very aware that North Ballard had its challenges with roadside rain gardens (GSI) which made many neighbors upset and I’m sure we’re all appreciative of your concern for the Wedgwood neighborhood (by the way, Wedgwood has no “e” in the middle). However, as a wetland and stream biologist it is my opinion that much of your concerns and fears for roadside toxic waste landfills is wholly unfounded.

      First, SPU’s RainWise Program is entirely focused on getting home owners to capture and detain stormwater from their roofs and other impervious surfaces. This is different from being stormwater infrastructure (green or otherwise) that may be installed by SPU within the City right-of-way for the purposes of water quality treatment and detention. As you mention, the residential rain gardens do not require maintenance (apart from general landscaping) whereas the roadside GSI do require periodic maintenance as the pollutants (heavy metals and hydrocarbons) are bioaccumulated bio the plants. So, the point is that these 2 types of rain garden facilities are entirely different. So to suggest or even convey the fear that all rain gardens result in toxic mud puddles is not correct, although I know you attempt to clarify yourself at the end.

      Second, local geology is significantly different throughout the City thanks to the Vashon glaciation and other geologic process. Up here in Wedgwood, the soils are generally much sandier than in Ballard, although there are pockets of unsuitable soils. SPU requires that prior to installing any rain garden through the RainWise Program has an infiltration test to determine if its even feasible to build a rain garden at the desired location, although rain barrels or cisterns are always allowed.

      Third, the intent of the program is to put water back where it used to go…into the ground. This reduces the volume of stormwater that SPU’s system needs to be designed to handle and reduces the frequency of the combined sewer overflow (CSO) systems from discharging sewage into the receiving water which, in our case, is Lake Washington. Does one rain garden of GSI make a sizable difference? Probably not, but collectively and over time it helps reduce the overall volume of stormwater in the SPU system…not to mention the beautiful landscaping that is installed, the habitat that it provides to the birds and bees (literally), and the replenishing of the local aquifers below ground that support our salmon-bearing streams like Thornton Creek.

      While Ballard had a few well publicized and poorly sited rain gardens, there are literally thousands around Seattle and Puget Sound that are absolutely wonderful and functioning very well. I have a friend who lives in Pinehurst and lives next to the rain gardens (GSI) that SPU/SDOT installed up there several years ago. He absolutely loves it and as I understand it many of his neighbors do too. Furthermore, the High Point community in West Seattle has gorgeous rain gardens throughout its development and as I understand it helps to infiltrate nearly 1/4 of the Longfellow Creek’s basin back into the ground. This is a HUGE amount of stormwater which in turn results in improved water quality in Longfellow Creek and less costly CSO infrastructure that SPU is required to build. So, while Ballard had a bad rain garden, I wouldn’t suggest that rain gardens or GSI for that matter are terrible and are some type of PR stunt.

  4. Didn’t intend my comment to drift into a rant, but neighbors and I (member of sustainable Ballard) really wanted the 2010 Ballard roadside raingardens to help solve our community’s important CSO issue. We felt our attempts to work with SPU were not answered in good faith even after praising SPU publicly for being willing to try new GSI methods and acknowledging prototypes are never perfect, but their GSI specialists clung to the original designs without compromise until the community felt cutoff from meaningful engagement toward solutions. You can appreciate it was a long frustrating experience, given that we demonstrated a willingness to come more than halfway in the process. That didn’t get into the media reports and to my knowledge SPU has never admitted as such. As my earlier post outlined, the “re-designed Ballard raingarden solutions” implemented by SPU during the past 2 years, just plain do not work as effective GSI at all, though as a community that cares about Puget Sound we really need them to.

    You are right to point out that private residential raingardens fed from roof runoff are very different from the Ballard roadside bioswales and I think quite safe and effective if soil conditions allow the water to infiltrate quickly below soil strata instead of traveling as perched water horizontal flow where it might cause harm to area basements even hundreds of yards away. I worry the SPU infiltration soil test done locally at the site of a proposed raingarden in Ms. Smiths front yard can’t determine with any certainty that thousands of gallons injected during the wet winter won’t end up in the basement of Mr. Jones two houses down. If it really rains a lot the Jones’ might have had a wet basement regardless, however as my previous post stated; generations of Seattleites collectively addressed the problem of basement flooding given our problematic soils by illegally hooking up roof downspouts to side-sewers. Basements sometimes still flooded, but at least your next door neighbor’s large roof wasn’t directly to blame. Though we are trying to be green, injecting potentially millions of gallons of new rainwater into neighborhoods that have perched water issues isn’t very…well very NW neighborly of us.

    With this in mind, I expressed concern in 2012 to residents in the Barton Basin of West Seattle, where I grew up, about proposed roadside raingardens and perched water issues in the glacial till soils there. An angry SPU consultant told the crowd this concern was groundless scare mongering, saying the High Point Community raingardens her firm designed were loved by the residents without any reported incidence of basement water infiltration. I replied that indeed High Point residents were justifiably proud of the attractive raingardens, however the consultant was withholding an important fact; after redevelopment no homes in the High Point Community project have basements, they are all slab on grade or elevated crawlspace. A fact I confirmed with the homeowners association and rental agency officials. So I genuinely do agree with you that High Point’s raingardens are beautiful and function well (drain fine). The residents love them and because there aren’t any basements in the development I have every reason to think they’re great too.

    There are expensive underdrains below most of the raingardens in High Point and below the first SEA-street project bioswales in Broadview. Broadview residents told me that didn’t prevent a large quantity of newly injected stormwater from flooding some of the homes. A lawsuit stopped the project until SPU agreed to line all the bioswales with clay and geotech fabric, doubling the cost, making it so expensive that in the 12 years since only one more small section of Broadview could afford a SEA-street style stormwater upgrade. Full disclosure – I spoke with a senior SPU manager who disputes some elements of this account. I did speak with residents living on that street, but I am trying to find a full record of the legal proceedings to evaluate the facts for myself.

    Again – I agree with you that soil conditions are critical to successful raingardens, but not just because we need them to drain after a rainstorm. Our neighbors also deserve to be treated fairly and not have a stormwater solution at the top of the street cause real grief in the basements of our neighbors living along the bottom half.

    You mentioned that stormwater diverted by a few local raingardens might be too small to make a difference in basin CSO events. To this point I must in fairness admit, even a modest diversion or detention could have a much greater positive effect by virtue of “delayed peaking” than the volume by itself would. Delaying the peak water flow moment at the bottom of the basin gives SPU’s pumps more time to move water along to the treatment plant. These pumps are so massive that even a few minutes of delay before peaking leading to overflow, might allow the pumps to move just enough more water out of harms way, that a CSO event would not occur. The models are tricky, but a modest detention delay (cisterns) or diversion flow reduction (raingardens) in the right places can be very helpful.

    Lastly, since I do not feel we have the right to complain without also working to be part of the solution, this summer we paid to have 1,060 gallons of roof capture cistern storage installed under the RainWise program. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, SPU has refused to issue our rebate, because they don’t like our overflow details. On May 1st of this year 9 RainWise contractors, including ours, met with SPU staff to argue thru many issues that have frustrated contractors and caused a number of customers to complain of SPU mis-management of RainWise. We want this important program to succeed, but to date none of the contractor’s concerns have been addressed to their satisfaction, causing several to leave the program and others to delay accepting new RainWise work. For our part we have reluctantly hired an attorney well respected in this area of law to convince SPU that doing the right thing is advisable. We hope it leads to more efficient and less confusing cistern system design guidelines. This is what we hope, but past experience with SPU is not encouraging.

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