You’re standing in your kitchen in the quiet, late evening. Suddenly you detect a strange gurgling sound. The sink drains slower and slower, and bubbles rise in the water. Underground, a horror scene is unfolding: predatory tendrils snaked around the victim, penetrating it through every opening, dividing inside the body, and now they’re choking it to death.
You are about to experience a sewer backup. Tree roots have invaded sewer pipes leading from your home. You may already have hydrogen sulfide gas seeping into your house.
It’s time to find a plumber and check your finances. Maybe they can grind those roots out – or maybe you will be writing a check for tens of thousands of dollars to pay for a new side sewer.
Residential landscapes torment not only sewer systems, but also waterways. Your plant choices may resemble Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, screaming, “Feed me!” You pour pounds of costly fertilizer and pesticide to keep your plants happy. Perhaps you don’t know what kind of soil you have and what your plants really need. Maybe you think more is better.
Now your yard isn’t just an ordeal for you. Heavy rains wash excess nutrients and chemicals into the sewers, storm system and streams. You’re helping to boost algae blooms and feed chemicals to creatures like fish, seals, octopus, and orcas.
We can help you with that
King County wants to save you from scary movie scenarios where your own waste comes back at you, rats stare at you from the toilet bowl at midnight, toxic goo washes from your yard, and a black hole forms around your bank account.
For the second year, King County Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD) is partnering with Snohomish Conservation District (SCD) to provide free Natural Yard Care classes. It’s a natural partnership. The SCD’s mission is a lot like ours: protect our waters and create healthy places for people to live and thrive into the future. The Brightwater Treatment Plant is in the SCD’s backyard, serving northeast King County and south Snohomish County.
On January 14, SCD’s Ryan Leigh and WTD’s Monica Van der Vieren walked people through the steps to plan a yard that works for them for years to come.
A registered landscape architect, Ryan has seen it all: pipes clogged with roots, large trees leaning on houses and wrecking foundations, vines pulling down gutters, rats using shrubs as runways into homes. He has also experienced the downside of a home that came complete with an undetected side sewer problem.
“There was this bright green spot on the lawn that turned out to be a low spot in the sewer that was seeping,” says Ryan. “I was lucky that the city right-of-way extended into my lawn area because they shared the repair cost.”
Monica is a DIYer who learned from the ground up and dealt with common mistakes made by the former owners of her farmstead – and her own landscaping errors.
“I’m no born-green plant whisperer,” she says. “I grew up in an apartment in Chicago. Once, I thought I was doing my landlord a favor by pouring a bag of something I found in the garage around a shrub. It turned out to be weed and feed.”
After 16 years learning from classes, other people and experience, Monica manages a landscaped yard and growing wildlife sanctuary and gives presentations for beginning gardeners.
Your piece of heaven has more reach than you realize
In older cities where the stormwater and sewer systems are combined, yards have an obvious connection to the sewer. Seattle, Snohomish, and Everett are three of the cities in Washington with combined sewer systems. Yard runoff goes to a storm drain that may lead to waterways or the sewer.
“In heavy rains, stormwater runoff can fill the combined sewer system beyond capacity,” says Monica. “Overflows are designed to discharge into waterways. That protects us, but not marine life. Those combined sewer overflows (CSOs) include sewage and everything washed from landscaping, parking lots, sidewalks, and streets.”
It is a big enough problem that King County and the City of Seattle have major CSO Control Programs and have partnered on RainWise in parts of Seattle. RainWise helps property owners install rain gardens and cisterns to control runoff. RainWise recently celebrated the 1000th installation, saving Puget Sound from an estimated 16 million gallons of stormwater runoff a year.
All landscaping counts toward the goal
People don’t need to live in a combined sewer service area or build a rain garden to make a difference. Everyone can design landscaping that controls polluted runoff, a major problem for water quality in Puget Sound.
“Healthy, deep soil enriched with compost and protected with mulch slows down runoff and helps water soak in,” says Monica. “And people can find many attractive plants that don’t need lots of fertilizer and water in the summer.”
A well-planned, healthy yard welcomes people to enjoy and maintain the space, Ryan observes. “If you take the time to think about what you really want, how you use your yard, how to protect your utilities and your house, you’ll want to use your yard. You’ll take care of it.”
Planning your yard carefully can tide you over when life gets in the way of yard care. Ryan, whose wife is expecting a second child, says, “When you have family or work that needs attention, it’s hard to get out in the yard. A well-planned, low maintenance yard stays acceptable looking even when you can’t get to it as much as you would like.”
“If you’re staying in the same home for a long time, you need to plan how you will maintain the landscape as you get older,” adds Monica. “We’ve all seen a yard that turns into a jungle when the owner gets injured or physically can’t manage maintenance anymore.”
King County and the Snohomish Conservation District have teamed up to help people get a jump start on healthy, sustainable yards that work for people, pets, and life in our waterways.
Join us at the next workshops on building healthy soils and watering wisely. And check out King County’s Natural Yard Care Program to learn more about turning your yard into a dream for you and the rest of the planet!