The Duwamish River has been the lifeblood of the people that have lived along its banks for centuries. Whether it was canoe or ocean liner, the river has been a mainstay as a primary transportation route for the various communities living alongside the river. Despite its important ecological functions, 20th century industrialization dramatically transformed the river into a heavily polluted and degraded resource sparking a present need for communities to work together to preserve and restore the Duwamish.
Formation of the Coalition
In 2006 the communities of Delridge, Highland Park, South Park, White Center, and Georgetown came together under the coalition name of Duwamish Alive! to share resources to clean up and restore the Duwamish River. Communities, municipalities, non-profits and businesses are working together to restore the health and habitat of the river for both the community and wildlife. The coalition shares tools, plants and capacity resources to support semi-annual days of restoration up and down the river. Prior to the first Duwamish Alive event in 2006, the numerous groups working along the Duwamish River were all working separately. The Duwamish Alive Coalition is able to draw on the various strengths and resources of its members to support large volunteer events at multiple sites throughout the Duwamish watershed.
The coalition recognizes the need for collaboration in order to tackle a challenge as large as cleaning up the Duwamish. Bringing together community to restore the Duwamish River has seen over 5,000 generous volunteers lend their time and effort to restoration along the river. Each year the efforts of Duwamish Alive bring more awareness to Puget Sound environmental issues, news about the Superfund cleanup and restoration in the Duwamish River to local citizens.
The Duwamish Alive coalition continues to connect communities, municipalities, non-profits and businesses in restoration events in the Duwamish River watershed semi-annually. The coalition continues to work toward restoring the river and watershed, raising awareness about environmental justice and connecting citizens to the management, preservation and health of their public spaces.
Early History of the Duwamish
The Duwamish people have been present along the Duwamish River since the 6th century. They utilized the river’s resources as they hunted deer, elk and fowl, fished for salmon and harvested clams. The Duwamish people gathered berries and medicinal plants along the river’s surrounding riparian habitat to sustain healthy lives.
Prior to the arrival of white settlers the Duwamish River was an interconnected, thriving estuary. The Black, Cedar, Green, and White rivers flowed together to create a network of rivers funneling into Elliot Bay as the Duwamish River. The once meandering 14 mile stretch of the Duwamish River weaved its way through 1450 acres of intertidal mud and sand flats, 1300 acres of estuary marsh and 1450 acres of forested wetlands creating an estuary habitat of 5300 acres.
Working with the land the tribe flourished into the 19th century until the arrival of white, European settlers in 1851 pushed the Duwamish people from their lands. The Point Elliot Treaty of 1855 was signed by tribal leaders in the Puget Sound region and the United States government to guarantee fishing rights and reservations for tribes in the region. The U.S. government proceeded not to live up to its promises and ignored much of the agreement it had entered into with the area’s tribes. The Duwamish people did not receive recognition as an official tribe by the U.S. government thereby withholding fishing and reservation rights from the people who were the first inhabitants of the area.
As the Duwamish people were pushed from the land, white settlers moved in and controlled much of the land around the Duwamish River establishing communities in Georgetown, Seattle and South Park. In 1890 the city of Seattle began building a sewage system creating sewage lines that dumped into the Duwamish River, Lake Washington, Elliot Bay and the Puget Sound marking the beginning of industrialization on the river.
The desire to control flooding on the Duwamish led engineers to create space for industry and straighten the river. In 1905 dredging began in Elliot Bay to create a shipping channel through the Duwamish River. By 1911 the Duwamish had been straightened from a meandering 14 mile stretch of river that wound its way through estuary marshes to a straight and ocean liner-ready river. The sediment dredged for the creation of the shipping channel was used to fill in land in sections of South Seattle. To further cater to the need for industrial space, city engineers decided to sluice the hillsides along the Duwamish River washing 20 million cubic yards of dirt, 2.5 million cubic yards of sand, and countless amounts of garbage to fill in 1000s of acres of estuary habitat to create what is now known as the industrial corridor of South Seattle stretching south of downtown through the SODO district and Georgetown all the way to South Park.
With the newly created industrial space, industry moved in and started to take root in the south end of the city after World War I. The resulting manufacturing boom was coupled with poor management of industrial waste. As poor management of waste continued, the recently created Washington Pollution Control Board issued a report in 1945 highlighting the hazardous industrial dumping coming from metal plating, slaughter houses, packing plants, carbide sludge, acid cleaning, caustic cleaning, oil spills and other industrial processes along the river in addition to the dumping of raw sewage by municipalities directly into the river. 3 years after the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) transformer was dropped in the Duwamish River on September 9th, 1973 leaking 255 gallons of pure PCBs (highly toxic and carcinogenic, banned in the U.S. in 1979) into the river. Within 5 years 92% of the contaminants from the spill were cleaned up but the accident highlighted the need to address the pollution issues in the Lower Duwamish Waterway.
Early Restoration Work
As it became more and more apparent that the Duwamish River was in need of restoration, John Beal led efforts to clean-up Hamm Creek on the Duwamish River in 1979. He led volunteers as they worked to clean up toxic waste and remove garbage inundated at the site. After many hours of dedicated work, Hamm Creek became a wonderful example of what dedicated citizens can do to restore a degraded habitat.
In 1981 the EPA and the Washington State Department of Ecology recognized the Lower Duwamish Waterway as a high-priority study area. Two years later Kellogg Island was set aside as a habitat preserve by the Port of Seattle. Despite growing awareness of the hazards caused from pollution, by 1985 the estuary stretching from West Seattle to Beacon Hill had lost 98% of its shallows, flats and tidal marshes. The following years saw citizens, community groups and non-profits work to restore the habitats on the Duwamish River and in the Duwamish River Watershed.
In 2001 the Lower Duwamish Waterway was designated as a Federal Superfund site. The EPA recognized 5 areas on the river for early action clean up. The EPA has worked with the city, the port, the county, the state and local industry to begin cleanup work on these early action areas. The remaining sections of the waterway will begin cleanup once the EPA finalizes a clean-up plan and has the plan approved. Businesses and municiplities associated with polluting the river will be responsible for much of the cleanup on the river.
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