Community Science on the Duwamish River: Empowering Youth to Take Stormwater Action

Ry Yahn (they/them)
Ry Yahn (they/them)

Stormwater Engagement Program Manager, City of Seattle

Hi! I’m Ry, and I want to share with you why I’m passionate about the intersection of stormwater, community science, and youth stewardship. I became passionate about these issues while working with the community group Duwamish Valley Sustainability Association (DVSA) on a project called Juntos Podemos Cuidar Nuestro Río Duwamish (‘Together We Can Care for Our Duwamish River’).

Interns Michelle, Carlos, Fatima, and Dayanara and DVSA founder Edwin taking measurements on collected samples in their rain jackets.

What is stormwater anyways?

Let’s start with stormwater, which is what we call rainwater after it hits the ground. We’ve all seen the metal grates on our streets that we call storm drains. But not everyone knows that these storm drains carry pollution from our streets into local waterways. When it rains, stormwater carries toxic chemicals from cars, buildings, industry, and our own yards into storm drains. This polluted stormwater runoff then travels through an underground network of pipes. These pipes empty untreated stormwater into nearby creeks, lakes, and rivers such as the Duwamish River.

If you don’t already know, the Duwamish River is one of the most polluted rivers in the country. For over a century, it has served as Seattle’s industrial backbone. In 2001, the EPA established the Lower Duwamish Waterway (LDW) Superfund Site to begin to address the contaminated sediment at the bottom of the river. However, before the contaminated sand and mud are cleaned, ongoing sources of pollution first need to be found and controlled. And what is the biggest ongoing source of pollution into the Duwamish? You got it: stormwater runoff. More than 20,000 acres of land drain into the Duwamish River from storm drains in Seattle.

Map of the last 5 miles of the Duwamish River, showing the hundreds of outfalls on the river and the 12 outfalls we selected for monitoring. The map also shows how much of the waterfront is zoned for industry or port purposes, making it inaccessible to the public.

The investigation begins

When DVSA youth learned about how important source control is, they had a lot of questions. So, last winter, we began investigating what kind of water is going into the Duwamish River from storm drains. To do this, we first found twelve stormwater discharge points, known as outfalls, along the Duwamish River to monitor. Among our selected monitoring points was an outfall at the end of an industrial street, a pipe that diverts runoff from a heavily trafficked bridge over the river, and pre- and post-rain garden treatment sites. We accessed most of these outfalls by boat, as most of the waterfront is occupied by industry and inaccessible to the public.

Rain or shine, we collected water samples at each outfall every week for three months. We tested each sample for the variables scientists use to measure water quality, like temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen. Next, DVSA youth learned to enter and analyze this data in Excel to compare measurements across sites. Working with experts, we identified potentially concerning outfalls. Together, we asked, why are some outfalls releasing cleaner water than others? Where do these outfalls originate?

Democratizing Science

Community monitoring projects like this one ‘democratize’ science by lowering barriers and creating avenues for public participation in data collection and analysis. All too often, data is collected and managed in ways that are inaccessible to communities. That data is then used by experts to make decisions about communities without the community’s full input. On the other hand, when community members participate in collecting this data, they make sure that their priorities are addressed by the research. It also paves the way for their continued participation in issues surrounding the future of their local waters.

Centering youth in this work builds the next generation of water stewards. They get the opportunity to apply scientific concepts they learn in school in a real-world situation that impacts their communities, while also increasing their knowledge, skills, and passion for continuing this work in their future. Furthermore, youth are leaders in their communities who can spread awareness to their families and friends about how to prevent pollution. Simple actions like fixing car motor oil leaks, washing cars at commercial car washes, picking up pet waste, and removing trash and debris from around storm drains go a long way to protect the lakes, creeks, and rivers at the other end of the storm drain. As DVSA youth interns Michelle and Fatima explain, “this water doesn’t just stay here, it goes to Puget Sound as well, and it affects everyone.”

Now it’s your turn

I hope this inspires you to support a community water monitoring project in your watershed! Together, we can build equitable partnerships between impacted communities, public agencies, and watershed scientists to protect our waters and build a new generation of water stewards.

Looking for a local community science project to support? Check out these projects across Puget Sound to find one in your area:

Stormwater Monitoring Project in Anacortes

Sno-King Water Watchers in King County and Snohomish County

Lost Urban Creeks project in South Seattle & South King County

North Sound Stewards in Whatcom and Skagit County

Streamkeepers of Clallam County

WSU Beach Watchers in Snohomish County

Cutthroats of Carpenter Creek in Kingston and North Kitsap

Thornton Creek Community Scientist Water Quality Monitoring in Seattle

Stream Team & Salmon Watchers in Bellevue

Learn more about our project

This project was funded by the Rose Foundation and carried out with support from Puget Soundkeeper, Duwamish River Community Coalition, Heron’s Nest, Sno-King Watershed Council, and Sustainable Seattle.

Check out a short video about our project.

Watch our panel discussion titled ‘Community Monitoring and Stewardship in Urban Watersheds’ at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference and learn more about other community monitoring efforts in the region.

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