Old farm in Arlington has new job: cleaning stormwater

ARLINGTON — Dragonflies float above the water, goldfinches nibble on thistles, and a turkey vulture circles in the breeze.

On the ground, a snakeskin, raccoon prints and deer and coyote scat can be found among the young Douglas fir, wild roses, alder and Oregon grape that line the trails in the city’s new 9-acre Old Town Wetlands Park.

In 15 years, this man-made wetlands should naturalize and provide shade to cool its water, which comes from the storm drains on 270 acres in downtown Arlington.

A catch basin traps the cigarette butts and gravel. Cattails absorb pollutants such as motor oil and dog manure. The water, exposed to the sun and tumbled over rocks and logs, gets a good cleaning before it runs into the Stillaguamish River.

Steve Edwards, 63, lives three blocks away. He strolls down to Haller Park on the river, under the Highway 9 bridge and onto the wetlands. Edwards walks there in the summer and snowshoes in the winter. He appreciates the bridges, benches, picnic tables and educational interpretive signs throughout the park.

“Not many people know about it yet, but wetlands park is a great place,” Edwards said. “The wetlands clean the storm water that used to wash straight into the river. It keeps a lot of crud out of the Stilly. It’s just an example of why Arlington is a good community.”

In fact, Arlington is one of the state’s leading small cities in its commitment to protect the environment, said Ralph Svrjcek, a water quality specialist with the state Department of Ecology.

“Arlington is special because its city officials always have been eager to participate in cleaning up the Stillaguamish River,” Svrjcek said.

Last year, the city finished a $35 million upgrade to its wastewater treatment and water reclamation facility. The goal was that the city would exceed the state’s new water-quality requirements and return to the river water that was at least 15 times cleaner than what was produced by the former wastewater treatment plant, said James Kelly, the city’s public works director.

“We did better than 15 percent,” Kelly said. “Pollutants in our reclaimed water are non-detectable by laboratories.”

In other words, you could drink it.

The creation of the $1.2 million wetlands followed, paid for with state Ecology grants and city funds.

“The wetlands project wasn’t required by the state, but people in Arlington knew it was the right thing to do,” Svrjcek said. “And the wetlands isn’t just a pond. It’s a park, a community amenity. The project has been a partnership of the city and the state to do something good for the Stilly.”

The Stillaguamish Tribe’s environmental program manager, Pat Stevenson, agreed.

“It’s always good when we can reduce the impact from urban areas on rivers,” Stevenson said. “The city’s wastewater treatment plant is very sophisticated, and the stormwater wetlands is that extra effort that will help bring salmon back to the Stillaguamish.”

The tribe is part of the Stillaguamish River Clean Water District Advisory Board that late last year awarded the city a certificate in recognition of its contributions to protect water resources and improve water quality in the river, in the Port Susan and Skagit bays and the rest of the Salish Sea.

The new treatment plant and stormwater wetlands have garnered the attention of national trade magazines, engineering firms, public works directors and college science students.

The wetlands also has been nominated for awards from national and statewide municipal planning associations, Kelly said.

“The effort is being recognized, but really it’s just about being a good steward and building a sustainable community,” Kelly said. “We want to be around here for another 100 years.”

More than 150 years ago, the site of the wetlands park was a fishing spot for the Stillaguamish people. Later a cedar shake mill operated there and then, later, it became a dairy farm. City officials were happy when, 12 years ago, Arlington was able to buy the 27-acre farm, said Bill Blake, the city’s wetlands manager and natural resources expert.

The wetlands can withstand a winter flood and is nourished in the dry summer months by water from the water reclamation facility, Blake said.

In the rainy season, the stormwater is filtered through four stages. The first takes out the garbage; the second is the cattail swamp that soaks up pollutants; the third is a creeklike area that meanders into shady spots to cool the water; and the last is an area filled with logs and rocks that help oxygenate the water, Blake said. The cattails are to be harvested by the Stillaguamish tribe for use in traditional crafts and mats, he added.

“In a few years the wetlands will retain water and create its own cool, moist micro-climate,” Blake said. “It shows what cities can do to promote fish recovery. It’s right for the salmon, but also for our kids who spend summer days playing along the river.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

Park volunteers

To volunteer to help weed the city’s new storm water wetlands park, contact manager Bill Blake at 360-403-3440.

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