Pretty, practical pollution prevention

November 27, 2012

Here in the Pacific Northwest, you can add rain to death and taxes on the list of life’s certainties. In the Seattle-area we set rainfall records earlier this month, sparking floods and mudslides. And as the region has been paved over, our wastewater and stormwater systems have to absorb more and more – and the infrastructure hasn’t kept pace. Now highly polluted runoff is slowly poisoning Puget Sound.

Cities and towns are trying to treat rainfall where it lands, keeping runoff out of the sewer system and pollution out of Puget Sound. This so-called green infrastructure (like rain gardens, bioswales, and rain barrels) often ends up being cheaper and more effective than traditional “grey” infrastructure, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But the communications challenges facing green infrastructure are serious. For one thing, most folks don’t understand the danger Puget Sound faces. For another, many are still stuck in the 1980’s, when point source pollution from dirty factories was killing salmon and orcas. The idea that our individual choices about dog poop, oil leaks and McMansions are driving the slow erosion of our treasured Sound is just too complex, and perhaps too threatening to entrenched lifestyles and industries.

That means we can’t take the usual route: explain that Puget Sound is dirty and then try to enlist people in clean up efforts. That’s so 1975. And we don’t have time to go back to the future. Instead, we’re working with visionaries around the Sound to help residents understand that green infrastructure is not only beautiful, but it prevents pollution too. The prevention message is one that audiences intuitively grasp, and we’re making great use of it as the movement to install thousands of rain gardens takes root in our sodden soils.

Brendan and Belinda