No challenge was too big

The other day, I was driving out to pay one of my last visits to a dear friend, Elsie Sorgenfrei. As I got closer to her house next to Sorgenfrei Creek, a county road maintenance flagger held up a stop sign. While I waited, I noticed a large mechanical mower cutting vegetation next to the road that was near the creek.

A smile came to my face. That stop in the road brought back memories of when I first met Elsie back in 1979. At that time I was a water resource planner for Snohomish County’s Planning Department, and Elsie was very unhappy that the County Public Works Department was spraying herbicides on weeds along roads next to streams. She knew that that was a problem for water quality and fish and wanted to know how to get the county to change its procedures.

I introduced her to the public works director. Elsie presented him with a cost-benefit analysis demonstrating that is was cheaper, more effective, and much more environmentally sound to use mechanical mowers rather than herbicides. She also dropped the hint that she would walk in front of any county trucks spraying herbicide next to Sorgenfrei Creek.

Thanks to Elsie’s efforts, Snohomish County stopped spraying herbicides next to creeks in 1980. A little later on, she researched water quality problems associated with phosphates in soap products and helped draft legislation banning phosphates, which was adopted by the Legislature.

As I got to know Elsie more, I learned that, after earning a BA degree from the University of Washington and teaching credentials from Central Washington University, she went to Ohio to earn a master’s degree in Psychology &Speech and Hearing Therapy from Case Western Reserve University. After working with kids in Case Reserve Hospital polio wards for a few years, she moved back to Washington state, where she was drafted by the Snohomish County School District as a school psychologist and special education instructor. During the next 15 years, she helped a few thousand kids get on the right track to the future.

When the Snohomish County school superintendent retired, Elsie decided to move on as well and spent the next few years working for the Department of Corrections teaching non-violent offenders to get their GEDs.

While I was waiting for the county road flagger to allow me to move down the road, some other memories jumped in my head that made me smile more. After tackling the herbicide and phosphate problem, the next thing that Elsie did was to push for water conservation. In 1982, she installed a low-flow toilet in her house and proved to her neighbors around Lake Roesiger that the increased velocity of water would keep their plumbing from getting clogged. Then, she set out to convince others.

On behalf of the Snohomish County League of Women Voters, Elsie replaced a passenger seat in her van with a low-flow toilet and filled up the rest of the van with information on water conservation. Then she traveled around Snohomish County to community fairs and club meetings — and on to Olympia, where she lobbied the Legislature.

Her water conservation campaign led to a nametag KING-TV reporters used that caused her to smile: The Toilet Lady. Thanks largely to her non-stop water conservation effort, in 1993, the Legislature required low-flow toilets in all new construction and remodels.

Thinking about the billions of gallons of water the “Toilet Lady” saved should bring a smile to your face, too. Another reason to smile — Elsie told me that she really enjoyed a photo of her of her next to Lake Roesinger posing beside a low-flow with her small dog peering out from inside the toilet bowl!

While in the midst of her water conservation efforts, Elsie became one of the founding members of the Adopt A Stream Foundation and helped launch a long-term program to teach people how to become stewards of their watersheds … to become Streamkeepers.

Then, she took on another challenge by asking questions about a hypolimnetic siphon (a giant aerator) that the Washington State Department of Ecology was planning to have installed in Lake Roesiger to combat low oxygen levels in the lake water. As a counter to that plan, Elsie got the lake residents to stop using fertilizers and to convert much of their lakefront lawns to native plant landscapes. Then, she provided WDOE with a cost-benefit analysis that got them to change their minds and not install the siphon, saving taxpayers $1.5 million dollars. That’s worth another smile.

Elsie does not like accolades. She often said to me that she was “just an ordinary person” and that anyone could do what she did. But she is anything but ordinary — she is very special. Many others think so, too. Her conservation efforts earned Elsie very well-deserved recognition as a Jefferson Award winner in 2008 at the age of 85. That national award is like a Nobel Prize for Public Service given to people who make a difference in their local communities on a daily basis.

She never slowed down. A major housing development that was intended to become a new city was planned out in the forest near Lake Roesiger. Elsie challenged the environmental impacts of that project. You can smile again. Instead of more urban sprawl in Snohomish County, the Department of Natural Resources and Snohomish County Parks and Recreation now jointly own this 1,600-acre site. In the not-too-distant future, you and your family will be able to go there and take a long walk in the woods. Another reason to smile.

Elsie was also instrumental in pulling funds together to construct an Elevated Nature Walk at the Adopt A Stream Foundation’s Northwest Stream Center in McCollum Park. In about a year, you will be able to “take a walk on the wild side” there and learn the interconnections between forest, wetlands, streams, fish and people. Another reason to smile.

Unfortunately Elsie will not be able to join you on those walks. Last year she turned 90 and was very excited to begin a new decade of protecting the environment. However, cancer has gotten in her way, and she is quickly losing that battle.

Always thinking ahead, Elsie just started a Streamkeeper Academy Endowment Fund to support great environmental education programs for you and your family to enjoy at the Adopt A Stream Foundation’s Northwest Stream Center. You can make Elsie smile by helping that endowment grow and enable the Adopt A Stream Foundation to keep “teaching people how to become stewards of their watersheds” long into the future.

Tom Murdoch is the executive director of the Adopt A Stream Foundation.

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