Protecting Puget Sound: Washington’s Stormwater Management in the Face of Rapid Urbanization

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Jeff Marsh)

For thousands of years people have been living off the abundant aquatic and terrestrial natural resources that characterize the Pacific Northwest. From the salt waters of the Puget Sound to the freshwaters of the glacial blue lakes, the abundant salmon, herring, candlefish, shellfish, cod, halibut, gray whales, and western red cedar are valuable economic resources. Things changed, however, during the Industrial Revolution when the railroad brought mechanized resource-extraction to the Pacific Northwest increasing timber harvest and salmon catches and attracting adventurers and entrepreneurs to the region.

Salmon filets are prepared and hung in a smokehouse in Hydaburg on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Erika Nortemann)

The explosive growth of the economy led to a corresponding growth in the human population and urbanization. By the 1920’s both the timber industry, salmon catches, and shellfish production were on the decline with many blaming reduction in salmon and shellfish populations on water quality in the sound. By 1950, the Puget Sound was home to 1.29 million peopleopen_in_new and within 60 years the population grew to 4.6 million people, with predictions of the population reaching 5.7 million by 2050.open_in_new

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Seattle- Alaskan Way Viaduct (I90) from Victor Steinbrueck Park

Photo © Megan Whatton

The Puget Sound area is known for its rainy, overcast weather. Interestingly enough, this area receives the same amount of rain (~40 inches/year) as Miami, Florida or New York City. What does differ, however, are the number of rainy days. Like much of the West coast, the rainy season occurs between October and May as the jet stream shifts to carry pacific moisture straight to the coast. During these eight months six out of every seven days is overcast and rainy as moist Pacific air slows to rise over the Cascade Mountains.open_in_new

elvert barnes

Photo © Elvert Barnes

In a natural setting rain falls on plants, or directly onto the ground and is absorbed into the soil to be taken-up by plant roots or to make its way into the groundwater. When humans disrupt this system by replacing absorbent landscapes with hard surfaces like buildings, sidewalks, and roads.open_in_new The water that falls on these hard surfaces becomes stormwater runoff and is channeled into our drainage systems, picking up lawn chemicals, bacteria, oils, and hard metals like copper from vehicle brakes along the way and eventually depositing them in our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.


Sockeye salmon, still grey in color having just transitioned from sea to freshwater.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Ami Vitale)

Stormwater runoff is the number one polluter and greatest ecological risk to the Puget Sound watershed with 525 poor water quality streams, rivers, lakes, and marine water-bodies across the Puget Sound region. Given that the Pacific salmon populations fuel a three billion dollar industry and employs tens of thousandsopen_in_new, it is important that we do our part to reduce this threat to the waters of Puget Sound to protect these and other wildlife species, alongside one of the region’s economic engines.

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Photo © City Habitats

Organizations, municipalities, businesses, academics and individuals across Puget Sound are working on addressing the impact of stormwater pollution on the waters of Puget Sound. City Habitats was launched by The Nature Conservancy, Stewardship Partners, and Washington Environmental Council to build collaboration between these partners. Right now, the growing network includes 70 partners working together towards:

  • One billion gallons of stormwater treated using green infrastructure
  • One million trees planted or maintained to impact freshwater quality, sequester carbon, and benefit underserved communities through greening and nature-based solutions.
  • 20,000 new rain gardens
  • Green spaces created and enhanced in ways that better the quality of life
  • Cross sector, issue, and jurisdictional leaders collaborate to drive forward green stormwater infrastructure
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Photo © Megan Whatton

Habitat Network is working with City Habitat partners to bring awareness to the initiative, provide supporting materials, and be a tool to help reach their goals of creating and recording both existing and new rain gardens, rain barrels, and cisterns. Many Puget Sound residents are taking conservation action on their property and Habitat Network is one way individuals can get started and report their work while participating in the work of City Habitats.

Live around the Puget Sound?

If your site happens to be within the Puget Sound watershed, use our Groups tool to add your site to the Habitat Network-Puget Sound Group and help us track habitat in the city.

Step #1 Sign into Habitat Network and navigate to the Groups Tool
Step #2 Search for a group within the tool by either:
Using the “find a group” search in the left hand panel in the groups tool.
Expanding the list of groups found at the bottom of the Groups page.

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Photo ©

Choose the Group called Habitat Network- Puget Sound.

Step #3 Once you are viewing the Habitat Network- Puget Sound Group, choose the “Join Group” at the top right of the Group Summary page.

Step#4 From the “Join this Group” dropdown, choose the map from the list of your sites that applies to the Habitat Network-Puget Sound group.

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Photo ©

Step #5 Some groups may have membership conditions. Members of this group are geographically located in the Puget Sound Watershed. If you want to add any justification as to why your map should be accepted into the group, please include before submitting.

Step #6 Submit your map to the group for review. The creator of the group will review your map based on the group conditions (which can be found on the group summary page) and will accept your map into the group.

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Photo ©