Bellevue, Washington

Merging Stormwater Features with Parks and Recreation

View of stormwater retention areas amid park land (Source: Environmental Services in Action)

City of Bellevue officials first explored the option of aboveground, natural drainage systems as an alternative to a costly, underground pipe system in 1974. At that time, a decision was made to manage stormwater and flooding using an interconnected system of natural areas and existing drainage features. This decision laid the groundwork for an innovative stormwater management program that meets multiple objectives to control flooding, improve water quality, preserve open space, and provide recreational opportunities.

History

In the 1960s the City of Bellevue experienced rapid urban development, growing from approximately 6,000 residents over five square miles to more than 100,000 residents over 30.6 square miles. This accelerated growth led Bellevue citizens to voice concerns over the effects of growth on community character, open space, and the environment, particularly stream health.

A citizen advisory committee was formed to address these issues, and it soon became clear that comprehensive stormwater and natural resource management would require a significant financial investment (Diessner, no date). In 1974 the City formed a drainage utility to fund stormwater management activities. Its mission was "to manage the storm and surface water system in Bellevue, to maintain a hydrologic balance, to prevent property damage, and to protect water quality; for the safety and enjoyment of citizens and the preservation and enhancement of wildlife habitat."

A number of stormwater alternatives were considered as Bellevue developed a master plan for drainage, including constructing storm sewers, using a combination of open streams and sewer bypass pipelines, using open streams and on-site stormwater detention controls, and constructing regional flood controls. In the end, the City decided on a combination of three measures:

  1. On-site flood control requirements to mitigate impacts from future development
  2. Stormwater conveyance through open streams
  3. Installation of regional controls to mitigate the impacts of existing development

Incorporating Recreation into Stormwater Features

View of the high flow storage area from above the playground and tennis courts during a rainstorm (Source: Environmental Services in Action)

As part of the City's plan, the Storm and Surface Water Utility (Utility) was tasked with acquiring land for stormwater management and flood control. Open space areas were designated for water quantity and quality control, and stream corridors and steep slopes were protected from development. The open spaces were connected via a network of neighborhood parks. To ensure that these lands offered multiple benefits to the community, the Utility installed stormwater facilities to enhance drainage and water treatment, and residents shared the costs to install recreational facilities. Subsequently, the Utility and the Parks and Community Services Department (Parks) formed a partnership in which the Utility purchased the land and built stormwater management features, and the Parks built and maintained recreational facilities at each location. For example, if the Utility built a stormwater vault, the Parks would place a tennis court over it. A stormwater detention basin would also function as a soccer field. The primary functions of these lands were flood control, water quality, and habitat preservation, and the City made an effort not to let the recreational function override natural resource benefits.

This philosophy culminated in the early 1990s in the Lakemont Stormwater Treatment Facility. The stormwater management features at this site include a gross pollutant trap, a grit chamber, a dry pond, and two amended sand filter traps. Recreational amenities include picnic sites, tennis courts, basketball courts, a playground, and a running track, among other features. The parking lot covers the stormwater facility, and signs educate the public about the park's function. The park was the result of a public-private partnership between the Utility and the developer of the Lakemont residential and commercial development.

In recent years, Bellevue's stormwater management focus has shifted from regional controls, which have shown great success, to new and redevelopment regulations. The Utility is also implementing capital improvements to protect downstream habitat. Their goal is not just to mitigate the effects of each new development project, but also to reverse impacts from past development.

Poster describing the Lakemont Stormwater System. (Source: Environmental Services in Action)
Click here to view full size. (PDF, 7.7 MB, 48x60 inches)
Educational signage at the Lakemont Stormwater Treatment Facility (Source: Environmental Services in Action)

Stormwater Utility

Bellevue is known not only for its natural drainage system, but also for being the first community to develop and implement a stormwater utility fee. The fee was not universally accepted at first-in general, those citizens in low-lying areas that are subject to flooding supported it, but citizens in upland areas did not perceive any direct benefits from fee-supported activities. Part of the problem, according to Damon Diessner of Environmental Services in Action, former Assistant Director of the Bellevue Utilities Department (Environmental Division), is that stormwater and flood control as a city service is not as readily understood and appreciated as other utilities, such as water or sewer. Citizens typically see stormwater crews when there is flooding or some other infrequent drainage problem. The City put forth a significant effort to educate the public about the benefits of the stormwater fee, and they held approximately 55 meetings in two-and-a-half years to solicit public input into the rate structure.

The rate structure has evolved since it was first instituted in 1974. It is now relatively complex in an effort to maximize fairness. Fees for both residential and commercial properties are based on impervious surface and total surface area, with credits granted for stormwater management measures and wetlands (NRDC, 1999). As a result, almost every property in Bellevue pays a different amount each month. In retrospect, Diessner recommends a simpler approach, one that applies a single rate to all residential properties, though he expects that there would be legal challenges to this approach.

Advice to Other Communities

Despite its success, Bellevue has learned some lessons since the early 1970s. For example, when developing the details of a funding mechanism for stormwater, Diessner recommends that communities spend additional time at the outset to ensure the rate structure meets the needs of the stakeholders. He found that it was much more difficult to make changes after the initial structure was already in place.

Also, it is important to ensure that stormwater-related activities commence soon after funds are collected. In Bellevue, citizens were paying the fee, but actions were not being taken right away because a plan was still under development. Diessner does not think a city needs to have a perfect, comprehensive plan in place to get started. Rather, the city needs to facilitate a constituency group to identify the community's top priorities and start making progress on those items in the short term. The city also needs to make people feel, know, and understand that progress is being made and that benefits are accruing. This includes involving the media to spread the word about project achievements and activities.

Diessner emphasizes the importance of involving the public and soliciting their feedback to get an idea of what citizens value, which might not be congruent with the values of public officials and department directors. Bellevue's research showed that their citizens valued water resources, open space, and aquatic habitat, particularly protection of salmon-spawning areas, which led to their integrated approach to stream protection, open space preservation, and recreation. Education and outreach were also important to show the value of the stormwater utility in terms of tangible benefits to the community.

Another important factor Diessner cites is setting appropriate priorities for water resource protection. Areas that are nearly fully developed need to focus on retrofits, restoration, and reversal of the impacts of existing development, whereas areas that are sparsely developed can focus on protecting, preserving, and enhancing high quality water resources. A community should evaluate the status of its resources to focus its efforts on the activities that will bring about the most positive changes in water quality and stream health.

Additional Information

References

    Diessner, D. No date. An integrated approach to urban stormwater management: a strategy for local government. Storm and Surface Water Utility Department, Bellevue, Washington.

    NRDC. 1999. Stormwater Strategies: Community Responses to Runoff Pollution. Natural Resources Defense Council, Washington, DC.
    http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/storm/stoinx.asp

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