by Sue Joerger

It’s not a ditch!

On Valentine’s Day Soundkeeper profiled Springbrook Creek, a tributary of the Black River, which flows into the Green River near the border between Renton and Kent.

I first met Springbrook Creek last year. I sampled industrial stormwater running into a storm drain that ran directly into the creek, found high levels of zinc and copper and reported the data to the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology). But it wasn’t until an Ecology Inspector called it a ditch that I thought there might be something going on between us. “It’s not a ditch!” I nearly shouted at him over the phone, “It is Springbrook Creek.”

Springbrook Creek, near the headwaters.

By then I was smitten. I wanted to know everything about this creek to prove that it wasn’t a ditch. Over the course of several months, I followed the creek from its headwaters to the Black River, and today I was giving my first tour to Amelia Apfel, Soundkeeper’s Communications Manager.

Downstream from the headwaters of Springbrook Creek, on the east side of Highway 167, the creek looks idyllic, with clear water, assorted rocks and gravel bars and dense vegetation unfurling green leaves. I pulled a large rock out of the stream and counted eight insects. Stream health is measured by the number of insects and diversity of species that a creek or stream or river supports, and my one rock survey makes me feel hopeful.

Looking at insects on a rock pulled from Springbrook Creek.

We followed Springbrook Creek downstream. It passes under Highway 167, runs through a pocket of industrial activity, travels under the East Valley Highway, then runs through a tangle of blackberries and eroding banks. By the time it winds its way through the impervious world of roads, parking lots and roofs to reach 80th Ave S, it is wide and brown. It doesn’t even look like the same creek.

In a native forest rainwater soaks into the ground. But when a forest is cut down and the forest floor paved with roads, parking lots and buildings, the hydrologic connection is broken. Rather than soaking into the ground, rainwater now collects on these roofs, roads and parking lots and then is directed into creeks and rivers. Not only is there an increase in the volume of water that Springbrook must absorb, but all of the pollutants captured by these impervious surfaces, including harmful heavy metals, petroleum products, and sediment, are washed into the creek.

In the course of 1.3 miles Springbrook Creek has transformed from a vibrant creek fed by springs to a stormwater conveyance system, dirty, polluted and swollen with runoff. It is heartbreaking.

Culverts on Springbrook Creek as it flows under the highway.

As we drive back to the office, Amelia and I talk about what it would take to save Springbrook Creek. It takes only a few minutes to figure it out. Put the water back in the ground with permeable pavement, rain gardens and bioswales that collect and absorb rainfall. Use best management practices to limit pollutants. Clean up the garbage and plant riparian vegetation on its shores. Fix fish passage issues. Done.

There are thousands of creeks like Springbrook, where the same solutions apply. That’s why Soundkeeper is working to enforce changes to development regulations, changes that we won in court years ago requiring use of green development techniques that help reduce stormwater problems.

If you have a local creek you care about, let us know. The more we can learn about the waterways feeding Puget Sound, the more we can do to protect it.