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Water Works by Cynthia Barnett

In architecture, community, ecology, infrastructure, North America on July 30, 2013 at 17:52

From: Water Works: Communities imagine ways of making every drop count (Reimagining Infrastructure series) by Cynthia Barnett, Orion Magazine, http://www.orionmagazine.org

On a winter’s day in Seattle, a leaden monotony hangs over the Central Business District, dispiriting to this part of downtown. Contrary to reputation, the urban pallor is not born of rain, which falls almost imperceptibly from silvery clouds that match the nearby waters of Puget Sound. Rather, the gloom rises from the cement hardscape. The busy streets are paved dark gray, the wide sidewalks beside them light gray. The skyscrapers rise in shades of gray. The hulking freeways, ramps, and overpasses: gray. The monorail track and its elephantine pillars: gray.

The gray shellac of a city repels more than the imagination. When rain flows along streets, parking lots, and rooftops rather than percolating into the ground, it soaks up toxic metals, oil and grease, pesticides and herbicides, feces, and every other scourge that can make its way to a gutter. This runoff impairs virtually every urban creek, stream, and river in Washington. It makes Pacific killer whales some of the most PCB-contaminated mammals on the planet. It’s driving two species of salmon extinct, and kills a high percentage of healthy coho within hours of swimming into Seattle’s creeks, before they’ve had a chance to spawn.

Returning some of nature’s hydrology to the cityscape can make an enormous difference —or could—as more individuals, businesses, and neighborhoods remake their bit of the terra firma. Washington State University scientists have found that streets with rain gardens clean up 90 percent or more of the pollutants flowing through on their way to the sound. Green roofs reduce runoff between 50 and 85 percent and can drop a building’s energy costs by nearly a third. Cisterns like the one on Vine Street solve two problems, reducing runoff and capturing water for outdoor irrigation—which in summer can account for half a city’s freshwater demand.

Seattle was among the first major American cities to accept that it had hit the limit. The Emerald City taps a clear mountain river called the Cedar, and a smaller river, the Tolt, to quench the thirst of 1.4 million urbanites and corporate giants from Amazon to Microsoft. The Cedar River begins in the cloud-laced foothills of the Cascade Range, flows forty-five miles south to Seattle’s iconic Lake Washington, and ultimately to Puget Sound. Seattle’s leaders had the foresight to begin buying up the river’s watershed for drinking water in the late 1800s; over a century, they’d preserved more than ninety thousand acres. At the upper reaches of the watershed, snowpack collects in winter, then fills the city’s reservoirs for the dry summer. At the lower end, the Landsburg Dam diverts the river for drinking water.

Read the article

Reposted with permission from: Orion Magazine

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