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Seattle University


Water, Water…

Written by Janice Murphy
April 10, 2012

About this time of year in the Pacific Northwest, none of us wants to see another rainy day. We all commiserate with each other about how tiresome it is and we wish for sunny days to lift our spirits.

We take for granted this wet, inconvenient stuff that is life-sustaining  and supportive of what makes our part of the country unique.

Before the development of our region, much of this rainwater was intercepted by large evergreen trees that dominated the land. They slowed the process of rain reaching the soil surface and absorbed water through stomata, small openings on their needles. Soils rich in organic matter acted like a sponge to receive and hold rainwater, recharging the underground aquifers and providing critical H2O to soil microorganisms that, in turn, converted nutrients to useable forms for plant life to take up, for those majestic conifers to thrive. It was, indeed, a perfect cycle of life.

Highways, roads, buildings, patios, driveways-the busy human activity of making life a little easier, has changed that scenario.  All these impervious surfaces displace the rainwater, causing a stormwater management problem. In the Puget Sound area, this problem has become acute, not just because of the damage it does to the land as it gathers force, but also for the degradation of salmon spawning habitat and the pollutants that wash into our waterways.

The conventional way to handle this water overflow is to create large, ballroom-sized underground storage vaults that retain the water and slow its introduction to its final destination. In recent years, you may have noticed "rain gardens" and "bioswales" are springing up all over the city of Seattle. These structures are designed to mimic the forest; capturing, filtering and slowing the water's journey to the Puget Sound. Rain gardens are one of a number of low-impact development tools that are being supported by the city to address stormwater problems.   

At Seattle U, we had the opportunity to see what kind of destruction a major storm could do a few years ago. In December 2006, we had a 100-year storm event that flooded the basements of the 1103 East Madison, Xavier, St Ignatius Chapel and Hunthausen buildings. As a result, some creative thinkers in Facilities Services, particularly Lee Miley, then utility manager, began to think about an alternative to the standard stormwater-holding vault.  In 2007, a  partnership with Seattle Public Utilities led to the creation of the rain garden near the 1103 East Madison Building, now christened the Lee Miley Rain Garden, as a tribute to all the sustainable improvements he made during his many years on campus. This structure captures runoff from the roof of the 1103 East Madison building, the street and sidewalk runoff and feeds it into the rain garden south of the building that's planted with tall grasses that help absorb moisture and create an interesting meadow affect.

A Celebration

SU Grounds invites you to celebrate the new location of the university’s P Patch garden. Join the fun from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday, April 20 south of the Broadway Garage (Columbia and Broadway).

A more high-profile rain garden on campus is at the entrance to the McGoldrick Learning Commons addition at the Lemieux Library. This is actually a series of structures that capture roof runoff from the addition and the original building, as well as all the paving at the east and north entrances. The water wall feature, the upper pool and waterfall all use captured rainwater as their source.

There are other, more naturally formed areas on campus that serve to absorb and filter rainwater. In the corner of the Union Green, a vernal pool that grows and shrinks with the seasons creates a water source for the wildlife in this garden too. Stand on the deck above to watch the birds using the shallows as a bathing area.

We may not always welcome one more day of rain, but we can applaud and support the positive efforts to protect our waterways. Take a minute to walk around the campus, maybe during a rain break, to observe these interesting features.

Janice Murphy is integrated pest management coordinator and an occasional contributor to The Commons.