When those of us who live around Lake Union survey the waters we hold in common, it is from a diversity of neighborhoods. The mix of apartments, houses and floating homes in Eastlake, the offices and restaurants on the south end, Westlake’s high-density apartment building “Riviera,” the traditional but rapidly changing Wallingford and Fremont.
As different as are our neighborhoods, we are united by the “Little Water,” as the original native inhabitants called the place. (The name lives on in the “Tenas Chuck” floating homes community in Eastlake.) We are joined together by living in a common watershed.
What is a watershed? It is a body of water and surrounding land that sheds water into it. A watershed is defined by the ridgelines and high points from which water flows downward. Watersheds come in a range of sizes. The Columbia River Watershed is the size of France and Germany put together. The Mississippi River Watershed covers everything from Montana to Pennsylvania. It’s all about where the water flows.
Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) offers this map of Lake Union and the neighboring Ship Canal watershed. As you will see, the watershed boundaries move well past surrounding neighborhoods and reflect older streams now in pipes underground.
As you might expect for an urban water body, Lake Union faces environmental challenges. SPU notes a number. Saltwater intrusion from the Ballard Locks sucks oxygen from water during warm periods. Summer heat can drive water temperatures to salmon-killing levels. With sewers and storm drains still connected, runoff can push fecal coliform bacteria beyond safe levels, especially during winter storms. The urban-industrial history of the lake lives on in toxic sediments, as well as development that has left only five percent of shoreline with natural vegetation.
Becoming watershed-aware means understanding the role each one of us has to play in preserving our common waters. It can be as simple as picking up your dog poop, using a car wash rather than cleaning your car on the street, and plugging oil leaks from your vehicles. Our individual pollutions all flows downwards to the lake.
We can also make our yards into allies for the watershed with natural yard care. SPU has advice on how to practice this at your place. One key action is rainwater harvesting. To understand its importance, consider the sheets of water you see flowing down streets and sidewalks during heavy downpours. The water goes right into the lake without the benefit of filtering by vegetation and soils. Catching water and using it in your yard reduces polluted runoff.
Climate change will intensify challenges to the lake over coming decades. Rising sea levels will press on the locks, while higher summer temperatures and increased winter storms will pose water quality threats. This is where the local connects to the global. Any action you take that reduces burning coal, oil and natural gas anywhere helps the lake, whether it’s cutting your gasoline consumption, making your home more efficient, or telling your elected representatives they must pass policies to reduce carbon emissions. Individual actions to reduce pollution are needed. Acting as a citizen is a force multiplier. Both are crucial.
The famous ecologist Aldo Leopold once said we need to “Think like a mountain.” We also need to think like a watershed. To preserve a healthy planet for ourselves and for our children, we need to start with the places we live. And we all live in a watershed. We who live in the Lake Union Watershed live in diverse neighborhoods, but we share our “Little Water” in common. By thinking like a watershed we can preserve and enhance our place, contribute to making a sustainable world, and build a new and needed sense of community among us.
Welcome to the Lake Union Watershed!