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The Rainwise Program

Walking down East Alder during the April 14 deluge, umbrella in hand (and I rarely feel the need for an umbrella,) I noticed the storm drain at the bottom of the hill. It was filled beyond capacity and overflowing onto the street. And across Lake Washington Blvd, storm water runoff from was gushing into the lake.

The Leschi neighborhood is part of the 65% of the city served by a “combined or partially separated sewer system.” That means, according to the Seattle Public Utilities website, that during heavy downpours the “volume of storm water and sewage may exceed the capacity of the system. That system carries wastewater from homes and businesses, as well as storm water from streets and parking lots. A few times each year, the volume builds quickly and overwhelms the system, leading to a combined sewer overflow (CSO). CSOs not only spill sewage into our waterways, they also spill polluted storm water runoff that flows off rooftops, streets and other hard surfaces.”

The storm runoff splashing into the lake in mid-April was probably about 90% storm water and 10% untreated sewage. Although these “events” typically happen between October and May, if, like me, you jump in the lake once a month, even in January, it is disconcerting, to say the least, to realize what you are jumping into. And even if you aren’t swimming, perhaps your dogs are. Consider checking a “live” update of overflow conditions. The county publishes a map showing which areas have experienced an overflow in the last 48 hours. On April 16, there were four pipes between Denny Blaine beach and I-90 showing overflow into the lake. The advisory is to stay out of the lake for swimming, fishing, and boating for 48 hours after such an event. You can see the map here:

It was fitting that a few days before one of the wettest Aprils in the history of Seattle, the RainWise folks came to introduce their program at the Leschi Area Senior Center. Perhaps if they had waited a few more weeks, during which we were pelted seemingly nonstop by rain, attendance might have been greater. A mere five of us gathered to learn about the city’s rebate program for rain cisterns and rain gardens.

The city has a federal mandate to lower the amount of storm runoff into surrounding waters so it has implemented programs to address the problem. RainWise is “a rebate program to install beautiful and functional rain gardens and/or cisterns on private property in eligible Seattle neighborhoods.” Leschi is one of the neighborhoods in which many households might qualify for a cistern. Because of the steep slopes here, most properties will not be eligible for a rain garden rebate.

The idea of the cisterns (which are much larger than rain barrels) is that they catch rainwater coming directly from a home’s gutters and store it, releasing it slowly into the sewer, thereby decreasing the rate of water running into the overstressed system during a major storm. Homeowners can also use the stored water for their gardens, possibly as a source for gray water.

The city offers a rebate hovering around 90% to 100% for the cisterns and their installation. In some cases, the city will pay an approved contractor directly so homeowners are only responsible for a small portion. RainWise maintains a list of approved contractors, many of whom will come out to inspect and offer a free bid. I invited one of the contractors from the meeting to come to our house only to learn that the small square footage and angles of our roof means that there was not enough runoff to justify the installation of a cistern. Otherwise, I would have happily stepped up to do my part to keep the polluted water out of the lake I so love.

You can check your property’s eligibility in advance: Go to and find out if you qualify for the program. The website also offers a number of other suggestions on how individuals and homeowners can help the situation (plant trees, install green roofs, un-pave, etc.)

~Anne Depue

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