By Myer Harrell
Myer Harrell is a Principal and Director of Sustainability at Weber Thompson. While focusing on urban infill mid-rise, mixed use multifamily and boutique-scale commercial office construction, Myer believes in the power of design to promote a sustainable future and manages the firm’s initiatives to that end.
This past Saturday, about fifty people hopped onto stand up paddle boards and kayaks and raced across Lake Union. We weren’t racing for trophies, but for something much bigger.
Toxic, polluted water from the Aurora Bridge flows into a dedicated storm drain to an outfall directly into Lake Union. Many people are aware of the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) problem in Seattle – there is a federal mandate for the city to address large storm events that can cause raw sewage to pour into our waterways. But there’s something I’ve learned from talking to Jeremy Febus at KPFF — a potential larger problem is one that hasn’t gotten national attention: our dedicated storm drain system dumps billions of gallons of contaminated road runoff into our lakes and sound every year. And that runoffs, with heavy metals, brake dust, and petroleum, is in some ways more disgusting than sewage.
Weber Thompson is part of some massive efforts within the new commercial development projects a few blocks from the lake at Data 1 nearing completion, and Watershed, currently in design. These are Salmon Safe projects that directly improve the health of waterways like Lake Union. In addition being on the ownership team of these projects, Mark Grey of SCGA has personally committed to building a grassroots effort to clean up the lake, one catch basin at a time.
It all starts with awareness. Mark and the SCGA team gathered champions of stormwater to spend time on the water on a beautiful July morning and consider the future of the lake.
Racers had a choice: stand up paddle board, single or double kayak, or swim to the end of the dock and back, along one of two routes. The one-mile route hugs the docks to Gas Works and back, and the three-mile route heads to the south end of the lake and back. With calm waters with clear skies, we started at Agua Verde (an in-kind sponsor), where we picked up our boards and boats, and warmed up heading a half mile along Portage Bay to the starting line at the dock at Westward, half a mile northeast of Gas Works Park. Buoys, boats, and poop emoji floaties (floaters?) marked the turnaround spots, in case anyone forgot about the CSO problem while we were paddling.
After the finish, we returned our paddle boards and kayaks and returned to the Westward dock (the site of the catch basin) to celebrate the winners with oysters from Westward and beer from Fremont Brewing. I took first place in the one-mile kayak race, I assume because I switched from decaf to regular that morning.
We heard the story of how Mark and others first became aware of the problem on this site. They noticed an oil slick on the water, and called it in as a boat gas tank leak. When the authorities arrived they discovered the source was road runoff, spilling out from the storm sewer the way it was designed to! We heard about the long-term goals for the (now annual) event, which hopes to identify the many potential sites for intervention around the lake and chip away at nearly 900 billion gallons of untreated stormwater that drain into Lake Union annually. We also heard about specific plans for the first project in the Clean Lake Union effort: to install bioswales (plants and soil designed to slow and filter the water) between three catch basins in the parking lot where we stood and the outfall to the lake.
It was great to see so many people join the fun and who were aligned with the cause – sponsors, building project team members, friends and colleagues. Weber Thompson is proud to have been a sponsor of the event, and sent eight racers to participate.
It should be noted that no one chose to swim.