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Our Community Quest for Clean Water

 Posted by Susan Bell, Development

Seattleites know that we receive an amazing, and some say wonderful, amount of rain annually.  Where that rain lands and what each drop encounters along its journey to our waterways is critical to animal and plant conservation. Here at the zoo and all around our region, it’s our mission to save wildlife and inspire everyone to make conservation a priority in their lives. Together, let’s focus on water! What are you and our zoo doing in our daily lives to promote clean water for our wild river otters, great blue herons, barred owls—and all our Pacific Northwest animals—as well as for you and me?

Photo of Nooksack Falls by Dylan Luder on Unsplash

What you can do from home:

Let’s be water wise. While over 70% of our planet is covered in water, only 3% is fresh water. Of that, less than 1% is available for consumption. Saving water isn't just about saving water. The energy needed to treat and deliver water is also precious. Saving water helps reduce pollution and conserve fuel too. Turn off the tap when brushing your teeth. Take a shorter shower. Consider installing water-friendly toilets and shower nozzles. Always wash laundry and dishes at full loads. Never ignore leaky faucets. 

Outside your home, installing a rain garden reduces pollution and flooding and protects your home and wildlife! In Seattle, we know the importance of dealing with a lot of rain all at once. A rain garden allows water to soak in rapidly, limiting the amount of storm water (which gets contaminated when it washes oil and antifreeze and other pollutants after hitting the street) that reaches our streams and waterways.  

Another idea is to add native, drought-tolerant plants that attract pollinators to your garden beds. Bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators will thank you! You can find a list of plants to consider here. 

Photo by Marian Kroell on Unsplash

Giant stormwater project in the Otter Parking Lot 

At the zoo, we seek and implement ways to reduce our water usage, and we make choices to promote clean water. Zoo guests from Fall 2019 through early 2020 likely noticed the GIANT hole in the parking lot near West Entrance (see picture below). Woodland Park Zoo seized the opportunity to filter stormwater runoff in our popular guest parking area. As part of an overall effort to repave and renovate the eastern portion of the Otter Parking Lot, the zoo upgraded stormwater infrastructure to meet City of Seattle Stormwater Code.  

Perforated pipe will allow the storm runoff to seep into the ground a little at a time. Photo by Woodland Park Zoo.

Prior to construction, parking lot runoff drained directly to the city’s combined sewer system without filtration or flow control. The new system captures all runoff from the large 1.25 acre parking area and routes it through a filtration unit to remove pollutants.  After pollutants are removed, water flows to a large subsurface infiltration trench, where it soaks into permeable soils below. The 100’ long x 6’ wide x 20’ deep trench contains a 6 ft diameter 100 ft long perforated pipe and over 400 cubic yards of drain rock; this vast underground reservoir allows even very large rain events to slowly soak into the earth! To reach permeable soils the trench was excavated 8 feet deeper than originally designed, and with this additional storage volume, the system is expected to infiltrate nearly 100% of the rain that falls on the parking lot. 

That is a lot of digging! Photo by Woodland Park Zoo.

The results of this project offer wonderful news for our region; this new stormwater system eliminates a significant amount of runoff from flowing to sewage treatment facilities and will help reduce detrimental combined sewer overflows into our local lakes and Puget Sound. "The system is designed to manage 1.2 million gallons of stormwater per year on site, however with the added trench depth & volume, the actual gallons infiltrated is significantly more!" explains Chris Mueller, Woodland Park Zoo’s Senior Director of Maintenance, Operations and Capital Projects. Chris led this fantastic project through Seattle’s fall and winter rain, working with PACE Engineers and Northend Excavating. Zoo staff provided additional design work and beautiful plantings for the finishing touch. 

Playful river otters splash in their stream on the Northern Trail. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

About the Waterworks project:

In keeping with our conservation mission, we are excited to embark on a study of how Woodland Park Zoo can conserve water and reduce stormwater runoff in other areas of the zoo.  This study, called the Waterworks Project, is a continuation of the zoo’s steps toward better water quality for everyone. We are proud of our Humboldt Penguin exhibit, which saves approximately 3,000,000 gallons of water each year through sustainable design. We look forward to ensuring that all our exhibits can one day tell a similar story of water sustainability. Our guests and community partners are an essential part of this project’s success. We are grateful to Boeing and King County for their exceptional support in making this project possible. If you are interested in learning more about this project and how you may be able to participate, please email 

Bubbles of clean water for this little penguin! Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Whether we are at home or seeking the ultimate parking spot to enjoy a visit with our favorite animals, let’s always consider the impact of the decisions we make—as individuals, collectively and as organizations—to protect and clean our precious PNW waters.