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Thinking Like a Lake Union Watershed

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.

Aerial photo of Lake Union June 2012 by Jelson25/Wikimedia Commons

Aerial photo of Lake Union June 2012 by Jelson25/Wikimedia Commons

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!

 

 

 

 

 

A Virtual Museum about Lake Union History

When Vaun Raymond was looking for a thesis project to complete his Masters in Digital Media at the University of Washington, he asked Dick Wagner, founder of The Wooden Boats Center, what, if he, Wagner, could do a museum about anything, would it be? Wagner responded, “Lake Union.”

His answer literally launched Raymond’s Lake Union Virtual Museum; the first video project was shot in part from a boat on Lake Union.

The museum is a multi-media website combining text, photographs and videos to tell stories about Seattle’s unique urban lake.  Since its beginning in 2008, the website has grown to 52 pages with dozens of photos and 11 documentary videos on various aspects of the lake’s history.  The website can be found at www.lakeunionhistory.org.

 “It’s a museum you can visit from home,” said Raymond who was a guest speaker at a Sept. 17 Eastlake Community Council  public meeting on the history of Lake Union.

The discussion of the virtual turned surprisingly real as two of the featured subjects of the videos were in the audience. Richard Haag the architect for Gasworks Park was there and so was Jackie Swanson a descendant of John Cheshiahud, for whom the Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop is named.

Haag spoke about the controversy surrounding Gas Works development. When the city started discussing ideas for turning the site into a park in the 1970’s people just assumed that the old gas works plant would be removed. The plant which had converted coal and later oil into synthetic natural gas was shut down in 1956 with the introduction of new technologies for natural gas.

Richard Haag at Gas Works Park from video

Richard Haag at Gas Works Park from video

Haag came across the shuttered plant in 1958 when he moved to Seattle. “That place is magic,” he thought. “I want to work with that site.” Just over a decade later he would get his wish.

In 1969 Haag was hired by the city to do an analysis of the gas works property to determine how to turn it into a park. While doing the analysis he became convinced that the structures were the most sacred thing about the place, but keeping them would be another matter.

The park was originally going to be named for Myrtle Edwards, a former Seattle city councilwoman. The park concept was being spearheaded by her family, but the family was adamantly against saving the structures and denounced the idea at public meetings. The sentiment from the family and many members of the public was, “Save that pile of junk?  What is going on here?”

Haag had a painting commissioned to show how the park might eventually look with the gas works and revealed it at a public hearing that over 700 people attended. That helped sway public opinion enough to let the project go forward.  The Edwards family withdrew the councilwoman’s name for the park. And instead the park, the first of its kind, became most known for, as Haag referred to them, its “industrial ruins.”

Jackie Swanson, a Native American, featured in the “First People” video was philosophical about her people’s history around the lake.  She noted her great grandmother had been born where Ivar’s Salmon House now stands, and her family’s roots in the Pacific Northwest go far back.  She described herself as Ancient Duwamish.

Jackie Swanson from video

Jackie Swanson from video

John Cheshiahud was one of the last Native Americans still living on the shores of Lake Union once white settlements had taken over. “What we got from Cheshiahud was always do our best,” she said.

John Cheshiahud was a master canoe carver. He carved a canoe for David Denny, and they became good friends learning each other’s language. Denny thought so highly of Cheshiahud that he ensured a burial spot for him at the Washelli Cemetery, even though the cemetery was segregated at the time.

“When you know the history of a place, the place becomes populated with the past,” noted Swanson.

More and more people are learning the history of Lake Union through Raymond’s project. Robert Onstad, Manager of Chandler’s restaurant, was also introduced at the meeting because he has set up a viewing room at Chandler’s that shows the videos as an option for patrons waiting for their table. It’s been much appreciated, he said.  “Guests want to know about what they’re seeing out their window.”

Besides “Gas Works” and “First People,” Raymond has also produced videos about Lake Union on “Boat Shops,” “Shipwrecks,” “Houseboats,” “World’s Fair (1909),” “Rowing,” “Seaplanes,” “Harbor Patrol,” and “Lake Union Drydock.”

What’s Raymond’s favorite? He declined to say in a phone interview, but he did mention that “Seaplanes” has turned out to be the most popular with over 86,000 YouTube views.

Being on the Internet the museum has a vast geographic distribution, he noted.  Recently a pilot association in Florida wanting to establish a seaplane business in their community asked Raymond if they could use the Seaplane video at community meetings. He said yes.

He also said yes when a design group in California wanted to use the Gas Works video for community education as they were planning to turn a similar abandoned structure into a park.

“People are looking at Lake Union as a model,” Raymond said, “and it’s neat to be able to contribute to that.”

This article first appeared in The Eastlake News, Winter 2013/14 issue.