City to work with residents on Roadside Raingardens

About six months after Seattle Public Utilities started the Roadside Raingarden Pilot Project in Ballard (.pdf map here), many residents who live next to them are upset. Nearly 75 people gathered to voice their anger, concerns and frustrations to members of Seattle Public Utilities at an emotional meeting Wednesday night.

A properly draining raingarden.

The problem, according to community members, is nearly half of the roadside raingardens don’t work properly. In the raingardens that don’t drain, inches of water will sit in the bottom for days after it stops raining. Andrew Lee the Combined Sewer Overflow manager for Seattle Public Utilities, acknowledges that there is a problem. “What we’ve seen is that some of these raingardens are not performing the way that the tests indicated they would,” Lee says. “They’re performing actually much worse.” The design standards call for the gardens to drain within 72 hours after the rain stops, a timeframe that some residents think is too long.

Nearly half of the roadside raingardens aren’t draining properly.

“We find ourselves in a difficult and surprising position with this project,” Nancy Ahern the Deputy Director of Seattle Public Utilities told residents. She says that Seattle Public Utilities has built successful raingardens in other parts of the city with happy citizens. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Ballard. “To be clear, we are very supportive of the raingardens,” Karrie Mathison said during a presentation by residents, “the point is we want them fixed.”

Residents put together a presentation for SPU.

During the two and a half hour meeting, many residents voiced their displeasure at many parts of the raingardens – the depth of them, the steep slopes, the standing water and the signage that the Seattle Department of Transportation requires. “We don’t believe that these are something that should be in our neighborhood,” one resident said, comparing the raingarden to a detention pond.

One of the raingardens with a steep slope.

A main theme throughout the meeting was the lack of communication between SPU and residents. “I would ask you, first of all, to be straight and honest with us as this develops and pay attention to the real needs of the community,” another resident told the contingent from SPU. That is exactly what SPU intends to do. “We are interested in partnering with the Ballard community,” Ahren tells us after the meeting. Within a week residents will get communication from SPU, Ahren says, and they will reach out to key leaders in the community to possibly create a task force. The plan is to work with the community to define what a successful raingarden is, she tells us.

Signs required by SDOT for the “bump out” raingardens.

The first course of action for SPU is to address the standing water. “Our first objective is to get the non-performing rain gardens to drain so we don’t have the standing water,” Lee told the group. “We fully understand the safety concerns that people have.” The department will do a retrofit to the non-performing raingardens as soon as possible to get them draining, although this may not be a final solution. Ahren wants the community to have a voice in what that final solution might be. If the raingardens that aren’t working can’t be fixed, SPU is willing to take them out and restore the street to the way it was, Ahren said at the meeting.

The roadside raingardens is a pilot project for SPU to create a solution for Ballard’s Combined Sewer Overflow issues. If this first project is deemed successful, other parts of Ballard may get these raingardens. You can read more about the project here.

126 comments on “City to work with residents on Roadside Raingardens”

  1. “Because of the age of the sewer system and the huge population spike of our neighborhood (tons more sewer!), they overflow easily.”


  2. what impact? the fact that you can’t park 3 cars in front of your house?

    that you have 4″ of water (oh boy!) in front of your house to attract those nasty mosquitoes and give you and your family west nile virus?

    face it. there are NO legitmate ‘impacts’ to homeowners. you folks will just have to “suck it up” or should I say “siphon it” for the rest of us who choose to pave our entire lots.

  3. I lived for many years in one of the houses pictured above next to a poorly draining raingarden. I agree with the comments about the generally poor draining qualities of the hardpan beneath Ballard. However, there are more complex and very local hydrology issues going on. The curbstrip on the north side of that lot was hard and quite dry and the grass went brown right on schedule in July. The curbstrip on the east side of the lot, just on the other side of the sidewalk, was always soggy in the winter and grew green grass right through August. I always suspected there may be a spring there and I’m not surprised that a hole dug below grade would fill with standing water–perhaps permanently. While I applaud the effort to keep rainwater out of the sewer, I think the only solution for that location is to fill it back in and plant grass again.

  4. I lived for many years in one of the houses pictured above next to a poorly draining raingarden. I agree with the comments about the generally poor draining qualities of the hardpan beneath Ballard. However, there are more complex and very local hydrology issues going on. The curbstrip on the north side of that lot was hard and quite dry and the grass went brown right on schedule in July. The curbstrip on the east side of the lot, just on the other side of the sidewalk, was always soggy in the winter and grew green grass right through August. I always suspected there may be a spring there and I’m not surprised that a hole dug below grade would fill with standing water–perhaps permanently. While I applaud the effort to keep rainwater out of the sewer, I think the only solution for that location is to fill it back in and plant grass again.

  5. that would still be better than having a hundred foot wide street.

    why was 28th so wide? trolley car or some nonsense I bet.

  6. They aren’t ugly, and I like swamps (wetlands).

    Hmm, a mosquito problem in the winter time. Yep, I’m often fighting off the swarms in Seattle.

  7. I wish you were “writeless” as well as speechless. You’re negativity is adding nothing to this discussion.

  8. Ponds cream, you must really be an angry & unhappy person. And to have to resort to slamming Scandinavians on being cheap, that really is foolish of you. Most were poor hard working people when they came over like my Parents & Grandparents from Norway. And no I never did have chemistry in High school, but I was taught manners & respect for others.

  9. Yep. We should cut down whole forests and build new developments with new roads, new sewer lines, new bus routes, new lanes to the highways, etc. Yep, that’s a much better solution.

  10. The problem with the “rain gardens” (mosquito breeding ponds, if you ask me) is that, at least in the Sunset Hill area, the soil is hardpack clay. It doesn’t perc, period. A while back, I did an ad-hoc perc test in my yard, digging an 2-foot deep hole and filling it with water (mid-summer, about as dry as one could expect). Two days later, it was still mostly full.

    Make you wonder if the geniuses behind this plan bothered to do a perc test or soil analysis to evaluate the permeability of the soil in the area.

  11. “Of course this is what tax dollars are meant for!”

    For building neighborhood swimming holes?

  12. SPU wants to reduce the peak storm water runoff from the impervious street surface. Water from roofs mostly goes directly into the soil (and unfortunately into basements). A more important question might be how do plants in the soil deal with hydrocarbon laden street runoff, or does this pollution just buildup in the Raingarden surface soil?

  13. My understanding is that SPU has not in fact followed design standards much at all in this Ballard project. I’ve read 3 of 6 soil bore hole reports. Their drainage rates per hour, perc test results do not conform to WA State DOE, Seattle DPD specs that water should not pond longer than 24 hours. Members of the neighborhood are now consulting with soil experts and SPU seems to have tailored this projects specs to fit their needs not the neighborhoods or the enviroments.

  14. Are they in front of your house? You hate developers, … fine we agree about something. The rain that falls on our house, my neighbors house, his neighbors house … etc goes into the soil. His driveway is crowned in the middle, so is ours, 99% of the rain falling on it flows into the planting beds, my wife makes me weed regularly. The Raingardens SPU and you love are supposed to mitigate roadway storm water runoff AND provide SPU’s employees longer term employment by collecting Federal stimulus dollars via the WA State DOE. I have read the 20 page DOE grant proposal. Would you like to guess what each 25′ x 11′ Raingarden cell cost …..about $17,000 each.

    We want them to work too, but due to soil conditions and many other important details they probably can’t….. at least as currently designed. Some have suggested what I consider to be reasonable alternatives which we’re exploring. You should go to the neighborhood Raingarden blog for better info.

  15. Having read the grant proposal SPU submitted via WA State DOE for federal stimulus dollars I calculate the cost per RainGarden cell (approx 25′ x 11′) to be roughly $17,000 each. And by the way the 20+ page document might be called a grant, but it is really structured as an interest bearing loan of $1.7 million. It is unclear exactly how much of the principle SPU (us) will have to repay, but indications are not less than 50% over 20 years at 2.5% interest, and it could become the entire amount…. I am trying to determine the exact financial details thru public information requests.

  16. The Raingardens are more precisely spec-ed as “Bioretention Ponds”. They smell pretty bad now when the pond scum is cold, imagine how they would alter the enjoyment of your own property once they enjoy a nice warm spring and summer day after it rains. Retaining storm water to reduce peak flows is a public good, but these don’t do that because they don’t work. Did you notice the asphalt plugs installed in the Raingarden entry points. Those are there for a reason. As it stands only negligable to non-existant street runoff is being captured, because the ponds would just overflow back out into the street and down into the storm sewer. And all this for a cost each of $17,000, not including the cost to fix them and pump them out when they fail…. again…..and ….. again. Full employment for SPU contractors.

  17. “Often attached right to your sewer line” — If that were actually true, you would actually be correct. Walk down your block and count the number of roof downspouts connected to a sewer line and not draining right near the house into the soil, then post here again.

  18. As one engineer to another, I agree that most technical problems can be solved and would like that to be the case for storm water retention, but SPU’s current solution is a bit pricy at $17,000 per cell (approx. 25′ x 11′) and in our experience SPU management are now in PR management mode. The SPU engineers seem reasonable enough individuals to me, but management wants this to be a war of delay and attriction with the neighbors adversely effected. Unfortunately, for both them and me, I have the resources and patience to engage in a long march. Like other engineers I find it difficult to walk away from problems that I believe deserve a good efficient solution.

  19. So it is always winter here in your mind and/or never rains in the spring or summer. Of course winter may have no mosquito issues but the winter and late fall bring periods of frequent rain which creates new problems. The Raingardens are very expensive and do not work. That is the issue as I see it. SDOT likes them as traffic calming obstacles, but that introduces problems related to safety when cars speedup to shoot thru the narrow gap in an effort to be courteous and not delay a car at the opposite end of the traffic calming retriction. The law of unintended consequences.

  20. I have read 3 0f 6 existing SPU contractor soil bore hole test reports and am trying to obtain all the other reports including the 20+ smaller trench(?) tests. A friend with soil analysis expertise was astonished upon reading the reports that SPU went ahead with the Raingarden project. She believes the tests show SPU ignored WA State DOE specs, Seattle DPD guidelines and enviro industry standard practice and just crossed their fingers. Bioretention Ponds (what the Raingardens really are) are supposed to drain in 24 hours with soil that percs at a rate of 0.25″ minimum per hour. The tests show the perc rate was worse than this and we have suspicions SPU only released the best results (I do not know this for a fact yet, however I am in the process of filing a public disclosure request and will know much more then.).

  21. In private conversations with an SPU engineer, I was told SPU’s goal for the Ballard Bioretention Ponds was an approximate cost of $16 -to- $20 per gallon of storm water retention capacity. Vaults that retain stormwater cost between $20 -to- $40 per gallon of retention capacity. The current Ballard Ponds are inching up toward $38 per gallon. I have begun measuring the dimensions of the Bio-Ponds to help evaluate alternative solutions and in doing so my own rough estimate is a current cost per retention gallon capacity of $33 for the existing as-is SPU configuration. I am trying to beat that cost with a design around $5 per retention gallon capacity.

  22. At the Feb 2nd SPU public meeting with residents, several people stood up and testified that prior to construction of the Bioretention Ponds they pleaded with SPU engineers to look more closely at the local soil topology, saying many experienced residents and contractors had huge problems with clay and water table issues in the neighborhood.

    One fellow remarked that North Ballard was known by older folks as the land of 7 springs due to all the natural places the water table breached the surface. Creeks flowed and water springs were common here back-in-the-day, but SPU steadfastly insisted that their tests would prove the Bio-retention Ponds would work just fine as designed.

    I submit the evidence suggests strongly otherwise. Neighbors who have tracked this issue longer than I tell me these same SPU engineers are actually no longer working on the project. Do not know if they have been re-assigned or were just part-time contractors.

  23. At the Feb 2nd public meeting between SPU and the neighborhood this exact issue was raised quite effectively by Karrie a neighbor who presented a 25 min Powerpoint dealing with Bio-retention Pond problems. Neighbors meticulously measured pond water levels and obtained averaged weather data covering the same multi-month period. The result showed only one day in a typical January would allow the ponds to be water free … if they worked as designed. Actual measurements for the month prior were similarly distressing. 3 days of drain time is NOT feasible unless it is OK for the ponds to be full most of the time during the winter months. And oh, by the way, the WA State DOE criterio for Bio-retention Ponds specifies that they drain fully in 24 hours, not 72. In fact we are trying to figure out why SPU was allowed to use a 72 hour drain time. Portland, Seattle DPD and many other states including WA all cite 24 hours as the standard. Maybe SPU did actually read their soil bore hole contractor reports and hoped upping the drain time to 3 days would be enough. Unfortunately, we know it still wasn’t sufficient.

    These are expensive mistakes that the community needs to help fix to anyone’s reasonable specifications…. or insist they be removed.

  24. I agree with your general sentiment, however neighbors traveled to the other Seattle Raingarden sites SPU cited as working beautifully and found none of them were the same design as ours by a wide margin. None were built in front of any houses. They were installed on city owned land adjacent to roadways replacing existing wide ditches, had no curbs, were generally much bigger in size (visualize a small marsh) . Nobody cared that they might smell because the prior old ditch smelled too and besides the new Bio-Ponds were not in front of anybody’s house.

    Apples and oranges. There are rumors (I’ve not confirmed as yet) that Portland’s experience with bio-ponds took a turn for the worse shortly after installation and in addition these look quite different from Ballard’s (which I can attest to). For starters the Portland RainGardens are not ditches, below sidewalk level, they are like nicely maintained RAISED parking strip plantings that I see on my walks in the neighborhood now, in front of neighbors who’s gardening skill I envy.

    These water ditches will not be rectified by tweaks, I fear and they will never look like the Portland “RainGardens” I was shown photos of over a year ago at my Sustainable Ballard meeting. I liked those, but not these.

  25. The federal stimulus “grant” money is actually a loan of initially $1.7 million, funneled thru the WA Dept of Ecology. I have read the original 20+ page grant application and it is still unclear to me, at this date, just what part of the loan is expected to be repaid over the 20 years at 2.5%. However, I am trying to get a definitive answer to that important question, since SPU wants to build many more of these bio-retention ponds in Ballard.

    The rough cost per “retention cell” (approx 25′ x 11′) I estimate at $17,000 each and might hold about 500 gallons when full. If ….if my back of the envelope calculations are in the ballpark then the main SPU criteria of cost per gallon of retention capacity is about $33. The original target cost per retention capacity gallon was supposed to be around $16 – $20, while fully lidded retention vaults(?) cost $20 -to- $40 per gallon capacity.

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