From forests to flagellates: The Water and Land Resources Division is a resilient watershed utility

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On any given day, the people in the Water and Land Resources Division are working on everything from the broadest of environmental issues of our landscape, to the microscopic work that takes place in our lab to provide one of the most crucial assets in our field – data. From stewarding the region’s expansive forests, to measuring organisms that are invisible to the naked eye in our waterbodies, there is no job too big or too small for us to take on to help ensure clean water and healthy habitat in King County. 

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From flagellates under a microscope to hundred-acre forests, WLRD supports the entire watershed.

“The Water and Land Resources Division carries out a very diverse mission. Using nearly a dozen different funding sources, we provide the science and the technical expertise to support residents and decision makers in their stewardship of our natural resources. Like our sister divisions that serve as wastewater and solid waste utilities, we are, in essence, a watershed utility.”

Josh Baldi, WLRD director

A significant proportion of our workforce spend their days in the field monitoring the effectiveness of our projects and programs; preventing or eradicating threats to our environment; building or repairing critical infrastructure that is unseen by the casual observer; meeting with residents to provide technical assistance for their land or business; and protecting or restoring the habitat that the region’s native species rely on.

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The Noxious Weed Control Program crews created safety guidelines to work together in the field.

When the COVID-19 emergency hit, WLRD staff quickly adopted new safety practices for field and lab work and deployed new online tools for public engagement and partner meetings to continue delivering essential services to our customers safely and without interruption.   

Under the microscope, behind the data 

The King County Environmental Laboratory was already well into a major construction project to replace critical infrastructure – fume hoods and heating systems – when the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic fully hit. Employees at the lab acted quickly to continue essential sample analysis required for public health, water quality permit compliance, public swimming beach monitoring, and support for the Solid Waste and Wastewater Treatment divisions.

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A construction project to replace a major portion of the lab’s environment was in progress during the pandemic.

Workflows drastically changed to maximize teleworking; moving from paperwork to digital platforms and ensuring safe distancing for in-person work at the laboratory. Communication with our customers and the public never slowed, and County programs continued providing essential services. (Check out, The King County Environmental Lab: Resilience and Adaptation Under Pressure.)

Teams of WLRD scientists adapted monitoring practices to ensure the safety of field staff by adjusting for social distancing, wearing masks, and conducting training and planning sessions outdoors or by teleconference. 

Field teams continued to do monitoring using masks and social distancing practices. Some employees’ environments made it easier to social distance.

WLRD’s scientists continued their collaborative work with Public Health – Seattle & King County to monitor the health and public safety of swimming beaches; generated new research about threatened juvenile Chinook salmon in the Snoqualmie River; continued their groundbreaking work to preserve imperiled Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon by partnering with a private hatchery on Orcas Island; and promoted and coordinated best practices for managing beavers.

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Providing water quality sampling and analysis to beach managers allows them to protect people and pets from getting sick.

Responding to multiple disasters 

In early 2020, before COVID was a household word, King County responded to the most severe flooding in decades which led to a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration, the 13th declaration of this kind since 1990.

During flooding on the Cedar River in February, the Riverbend Lower Levee was washed away, which achieved a major aspect of the planned project to widen the floodplain.

Due to the severity of the flooding countywide in January and February, damage inspection of all 511 levees and revetments – normally done biannually – was accelerated and completed by October to quickly schedule any needed repairs. Levees and revetments are essential facilities that help to reduce flood and erosion risks to life and safety, homes, roads and farms and other businesses.

In 2020, six repair projects and seven flood-risk reduction projects were completed across six river basins. The Flood Warning Center, now in its 60th year, restructured operations to ensure continuity in delivering critical flood information to agencies and residents while adhering to social distancing guidelines brought about by COVID-19. A new Countywide Capital Team was created to expand capacity for responding to urgent river facility repairs. WLRD is the primary contracted service provider to the King County Flood Control District for flood warning, facility inspection and repair, and flood hazard management capital projects. 

New programs and pandemic support 

King County launched the nation’s first County-led Forest Carbon Program, to sell carbon sequestration credits. The revenue supports the King County Land Conservation Initiative and provides incentives for preserving and enhancing privately owned and managed forests. The program received an award from the National Association of Counties for innovation in sustainability.

The Forest Carbon Program offers local companies the option to offset their carbon emissions which helps to protect the forests in our community.

Forest restoration projects that improve forest health and enhance opportunities to sequester carbon have increased and directly contributed to the success of planting 1 Million Trees with partners across King County.  

WLRD’s leadership through the King County Farmland Preservation Program over the past 40 years has kept nearly 16,000 acres of the best farmland available for production. Focused on equitable outcomes, the program also ensures land access is available to underserved communities and new farmers. 

King County’s farming industry was hit hard by COVID-19. Our agriculture team responded by helping launch the Local Food Finder map, connecting consumers directly with farmers when farmers markets and restaurants closed or reduced service early in the pandemic. The ag team also supported the distribution of $1.4 million in federal CARES Act funding to support farmers, farmers markets, food banks and senior centers.

Clean water, healthy habitat 

Water and Land staff are part of the regional Hazardous Waste Management Program to reduce exposure to hazardous materials and prevent toxic compounds from entering the environment. All prevention services were shifted to online and phone-only services. Vouchers were offered for hazardous materials management and personal protective equipment was distributed. A new website increased access to information about natural yard care, safe disposal of hazardous materials, and water quality protection by offering this information in 13 languages. The “Guilt Free KC” and “Ojo con el Cloro” (“Careful with Bleach”) campaigns promoted safe hazardous waste disposal and safer cleaning practices to protect human health and the environment – especially relevant as people turned to harsh chemicals like bleach to rid their homes of germs during the pandemic.

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Examples of multilingual outreach materials available being used by the Hazardous Waste Management Program to increase access and education and reduce toxic substances from entering the environment.

Landward, the Noxious Weed Control Program developed new field safety protocols to keep employees safe as they continued to control noxious weeds to protect people and the environment. Priority was given to high-risk infestation control that put people and critical resources in danger, and to property owners highly impacted by noxious weeds. Despite challenges, knotweed control was maintained on the Cedar, upper Snoqualmie, Skykomish, middle and lower Green rivers, and Soos Creek. In all, specialists surveyed more than 8,000 infestations of regulated noxious weeds, 86 percent of which were controlled.

The Noxious Weed Program’s Healthy Lands Project (HeLP) carried out weed control on more than 20 new public and private open space parcels, improving public benefits and supporting green jobs on nearly 70 acres. HeLP supported the new North Highline open space property purchased by King County Parks through a new match-waiver program that increases open space for underserved communities.

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By providing noxious weed control on land acquired by King County for open space ensures the land is healthy and available for everyone.

Adjusting to the world of on-line presentations, staff competed for state-managed grants for Floodplains by Design and Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration dollars and received number-one rankings in both highly competitive programs for construction of the Fall City Floodplain Restoration Project to restore 145 acres of floodplain process and reduce 100-year flood elevations on over 300 acres of Snoqualmie River habitat. The grants would put the division in position to construct the roughly $15 million project in 2022.

Managing stormwater is another key component to protecting water quality. In 2020, significant steps were taken toward developing a Green Stormwater Infrastructure incentive program within unincorporated King County. Additionally, the Our Green Duwamish coalition used innovative tools to engage partners watershed planning efforts for increased clean water.

Stormwater management includes moving runoff through a system of pipes and culverts, many of which are known barriers to fish passage that hamper efforts to restore weak fish populations. Removing these barriers is one of the most effective ways to quickly restore salmon habitat access. King County Fish Passage Restoration Program employees spent 2020 in the field creating an inventory of these barriers around the county.

As of November, the field crew had completed 1,438 site visits in 2020, reaching a total of 2,851 site visits since spring 2019,and identifying almost 800 fish passage barriers at County assets. The next step is to determine how removing these barriers will be prioritized to help the most fish get to the best habitat as soon as possible.

The above video shows chum spawning inside the new Green River Road box culvert into Mary Olson Creek near Auburn. The use of the culvert by fish so soon after construction was completed, shows the success of the design and construction of the project by the King County Roads Division.

Supporting and protecting King County’s watersheds ranges from creating expansive, multi-generation visions for our work, to monitoring the smallest organisms and connecting their health to ours. It is work done in the field, in the lab, and now via online video calls. All of it is done with respect to the safety of our employees and the commitment to our work.

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Categories: employees, Field Work, Monitoring, science

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