How one project will stop millions of gallons of polluted water from reaching Puget Sound

SEATTLE — Rushing down toward the water Mark Grey was concerned oil was spilling into the water. He and his associates had spotted what they describe as a giant oil slick out at Lake Union, but by the time they made it to the water a reality hit them: This wasn’t an oil slick, it was typical runoff from local roads.

“That was our aha moment,” said Grey, nearly nine years later as he walked KIRO 7 around a construction site.

Grey knew back in 2011 that there was a problem, he just wasn’t sure how he could help fix it. After consulting with contractors, scientists and the Nature Conservancy – he found his answer.

At the corner of 34th and Troll Avenue the construction is hard to miss. The building, owned by Steven Grey and Associates, is part of Grey’s vision. It, and a finished building across the street, are funneling rain water into what’s known as a bioswale – essentially it guides stormwater to vegetation that filters and removes debris and pollution.

“What’s so exciting about this, we’re just using nature to clean the water and do it’s job,” said Grey.

It’s an important job too. Stormwater regularly drains into Puget Sound throughout the city of Seattle, and it threatens more than the look of the water. Research by the Washington State Stormwater Center has proven that stormwater can have an immediate impact on salmon, it can cutoff their ability to spawn and kill off population. That in turn can harm the local Orca population.

While it’s easy to picture the need to fix the stormwater situation, it’s harder to pull everyone together to do it. When it comes to the Aurora Bridge bioswale project you have multiple factors to consider: The bridge is owned by the state, the streets where the water is funneled is city property, while the nearby owner of the building is the one looking for a solution.

That’s why The Nature Conservancy got involved, helping connect all the groups involved to clear the way for a project that will likely clean between 2 million, and 2.3 million gallons of water a year.

That sounds like a lot of water, but in reality tens of millions of gallons of stormwater with carrying everything from oil to brake dust makes it’s way into Puget Sound regularly. Chris Hilton, the urban partnership director at The Nature Conservancy, said that’s why a blueprint from this project is so important.

“This project will make a difference right here in Lake Union,” said Hilton, “but as we start to replicate this project all across Puget Sound, that’s where we’ll have a real impact.”

They’ve already drawn the attention of a lot of major players using a public-private partnership. While Stephen C. Grey & Associates funded the initial phase of the project, there’s additional help for the newer bioswales they’re building right now – part of the money comes from the state capital budget. Companies like Boeing, Tableau, Adobe and Geocache HQ have bought in too.

Work on the final phase of the Aurora Bridge bioswale will wrap up in roughly five weeks, and in the coming years it’s expected to have a long-lasting effect on both water and wildlife.