« Return to this article

Know the West

Seattle resident turns open sewers back into streams


After John Beal returned to Seattle from the Vietnam War, he and his family often picnicked on a wooded hillside where a large pond fed a meandering stream. Twelve years ago, developers bought the property and sold it to a sand-and-gravel pit operator.

"I watched over a period of five years as it was absolutely devastated," says Beal. "No one said a word about it and then it was just gone. That's what made me decide that I was going to start standing up for these water systems."

Since then, Beal and his I'M A PAL (International Marine Association Protecting Aquatic Life) foundation, which works to restore streams, have received awards from the United Nations and Seattle Audubon Society. Beal is an innovator in two areas: urban habitat restoration and forging cooperation among business, government and environmentalists. His labors have taken place in one of the Pacific Northwest's most industrial areas: the South Park district of Seattle.

Fifty years ago, the Duwamish River, which runs past Boeing and other major industries in Seattle, was home to mighty fish runs of coho, chum and king salmon, and steelhead and cutthroat trout. The fish swam out of the Duwamish into the spawning channels - Hamm Creek and Ninety-Sixth St. Stream - that crisscross Beal's neighborhood.

As Seattle's industry rapidly expanded during World War II, the resulting pollution virtually destroyed the fish runs. The spawning streams were turned into a wasteland until Beal began to restore them.

Beal, a big man with shaggy-dog gray hair, has made almost daily visits to his streams for over a decade. There, he has performed all the nitty-gritty tasks of habitat restoration: taking away tires, refrigerators and hazardous waste; bringing in trees, plants, fish, birds and mammals.

Now the three-and-a-half miles of stream once again host beavers, great blue herons, catfish and frogs. This year Beal counted 60 spawning salmon making their way up the stream.

In cooperation with the State Department of Wildlife and regional water quality agencies, Beal has taken a number of steps to clean up pollutants and reduce sediment in the streams. Sediment is the enemy because it can smother eggs which salmon or trout deposit in a stream's gravel. Beal constructed a series of small dams and ponds to trap sediment at the top of Ninety-Sixth St. Stream.

The dams "slow the water down and allow the sediment to fall out," says state biologist Phil Schneider. Eventually, Beal says, he'll dig out the soft gray mud which is filling up his ponds and haul it away.

Beal also combats sediment, erosion and pollution by planting native vegetation like watercress, lady fern and water lily in and around the streams. Schneider says watercress "can trap sediment and actually uptake pollutants and improve water quality." He also says the plants provide the stream with a scent for salmon to home in on and follow when they are returning to spawn.

When Beal began his cleanup efforts he discovered that some businesses were illegally dumping hazardous waste into the streams. So he went door-to-door in his neighborhood, talking with area companies about their waste-disposal practices, and discovered that many felt overwhelmed by the complexity and expense of regulations.

Beal responded by putting together a coalition of local businesses and government agencies which set up the Environmental Co-op of South Seattle. The idea behind the co-op was simple. Through forming a kind of buyers' cooperative, the businesses hope to negotiate better prices from hazardous waste handlers than any single company could receive on its own.

The co-op is trying to set up milk runs, where a hazardous waste hauler will go from one member's business to another's, all on the same day, and pick up enough waste to qualify for a bulk discount. Lower prices will reward the businesses which are in compliance and, the co-op hopes, attract those that are illegally dumping.

Though still in its infancy, the co-op represents a promising trend in an era where business, government and environmentalists are so frequently mired in conflict. Last fall, the co-op received public and private grants to expand its activities.

Does this mean Beal will end up spending more time in co-op meetings than out on the stream? It doesn't seem likely. Beal says he needs to work outdoors to feel right with the world.

For more information, contact I'M A PAL at 742 South Southern, Seattle, WA 98108 (206/762-3640).

The writer free-lances out of Seattle, Washington.