Earth Week 2017: Celebrating science!


Join us in celebrating science in the week leading up to Earth Day, April 22. Looking for a way to make a difference or pitch in? Check out our tips, volunteer events and green guidelines at our Earth Week Hub!

King County and its partners have committed to plant one million trees by 2020 as part of our Strategic Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon pollution and prepare for climate impacts. Trees store carbon and contribute to clean air and water, healthy habitat for salmon and other wildlife, and more livable communities. (If you want to help, here’s our video showing how to plant a tree.)

This type of commitment reflects why the Department of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP) is King County’s first carbon neutral agency — meaning we reduce and remove more greenhouse gas emissions than we generate.


Science is at the bedrock of what we do here at DNRP. We are specialists in marine biology, nearshore ecology, environmental chemistry, limnology, toxicology, wildlife biology and biodiversity, microbiology, zoology and more. Our employees collect, analyze, model and interpret information that supports dozens of environmental programs, including those that address land use, habitat management, wastewater treatment, salmon and biodiversity, water resources, and surface water management.

To us, every day is Earth Day!


County floodplain managers work together to understand a fast-moving river

Tolt tour_San Souci neigbhorhood
(L-R) King County Flood Control District Executive Director Michelle Clark; River and Floodplain Management Senior Engineer Chase Barton; and Water and Land Resources Director Josh Baldi stand on the bank of the Tolt River and discuss channel migration.

Notes from the field

On a gray day last month, a small group of King County and King County Flood Control District (Flood District) employees stood on the forested edge of the Tolt River upstream of Carnation.

Geologically speaking, this is a young river – sinuous, fast-moving and largely unconstrained as it courses from its headwaters in the Cascades to its confluence with the wide, slow-moving Snoqualmie River.

Chase Barton, an engineer with the King County’s River and Floodplain Management (Rivers) Section in the Water and Land Resources Division (WLRD), looked out across the swirling water. “This portion is the most rapidly migrating river of those we manage in King County,” he said.

Sometimes, the County’s goal is to use engineering tools to manage a river. “Here,” Chase said, “our goal is to get people out of harm’s way.”

Tolt tour_San Souci neigbhorhood_3
Teresa Lewis, River and Floodplain Management Project Manager, discusses the Tolt River’s historical channel migration.

The field trip was an opportunity to show Michelle Clark, the Flood District’s executive director, and April Sanders, policy director for Flood District Supervisor Kathy Lambert, proposed changes based on public input to the draft Tolt River Capital Investment Strategy in advance of a meeting with the Flood Control District’s Executive Committee.

The tour – which also included WLRD Director Josh Baldi; Program and Policy Services Supervisor Brian Murray, Project Manager Teresa Lewis, and Communications Manager Leslie Brown, from the Rivers Section – provided a window into the work undertaken on behalf of the Flood District. Michelle, who became the Flood District’s executive director in December, asked several questions of the team, wanting to understand both the rationale and the cost implications behind various actions.

The Tolt is a short but powerful river, flowing some 30 river miles and dropping about 3,000 feet from its headwaters in the Cascade Mountains to the valley floor. Its upper reaches, through steeply forested incisions, are largely inaccessible. The lower six miles wend through a rural, woodsy part of north-central King County, an area with narrow roads and widely spaced homes.

Nearly continuous levees border the last two miles of the river, protecting more densely developed residential areas as the Tolt enters Carnation and flows into the Snoqualmie River.

Flooding has long been an issue along these lower six miles of the Tolt; many residences are at risk during even modest flood events. But also of concern is what is called channel migration, when the river changes course and cuts a new path, heedless, of course, of private property lines. Rivers staff recently completed a 98-page study of the Tolt’s channel migration patterns along its last six miles, a carefully researched analysis that looks at the river’s history, geology, the characteristics of channel migration and those areas where hazards are greatest.

Channel migration can happen slowly as a river moves across its floodplain. It can also occur in the blink of an eye, when, for instance, a geologic or weather event causes a river to suddenly change directions. The Tolt, as the study points out, “exhibits moderate to high lateral channel migration rates.” Avulsions – the sudden movement of a channel – “are a major component” of these migration hazards.

As a result of the Tolt’s dynamic nature, the county and the Flood District over the past decade have purchased several at-risk properties. Since 2007, when the Flood District was formed, 35 at-risk homes have been purchased along the Tolt, all from willing sellers. Forty percent of the funding for those purchases came from sources other than the Flood District. The draft Capital Investment Strategy identifies another 30 properties at risk of flooding and channel migration. County officials plan to hold a public meeting in Carnation on May 8 to discuss its channel migration analysis with neighbors, community leaders and others interested in the river’s hazards.

Tolt tour_San Souci neigbhorhood_4
(L-R) King County Flood Control District Executive Director Michelle Clark, River and Floodplain Management Senior Engineer Chase Barton, and Program and Policy Services Supervisor Brian Murray head back to the office after several hours on the banks of the Tolt River.

Back on the Tolt, Teresa noted the important role levees or revetments can play in public safety but added that such tools aren’t effective on rivers as active and energetic as the Tolt.

“For us, on this section of the Tolt upstream of Carnation, helping people out of harm’s way is our most cost-effective strategy,” she said. “This is a river that wants to move around.”

After 25 years of work, a geomorphologist has a deep understanding of how rivers change

For a quarter of a century, Terry Butler has been observing the way rivers course through King County.

He has seen some, like the Tolt, transform overnight, when an avulsion – the rapid abandonment of a river channel to create a new one – has occurred. He has seen others migrate gradually, moving laterally across a basin over the course of years. He has watched side channels become main channels, witnessed erosion and sedimentation and has seen the dramatic changes a landslide can trigger.

Terry in the field
Terry Butler, a fluvial geomorphologist with King County’s Water and Land Resources Division, tracks ever-changing river conditions.

“That’s why my work has been endlessly fascinating,” he said. “Rivers are dynamic. They’re prone to change. And yet people generally live near rivers and construct things near rivers. We’re drawn to rivers. And that can create problems.”

Though his position has changed over the years, Terry is now considered a fluvial geomorphologist – a person who studies the physical processes that shape rivers and streams. And as he retires after 25 years from what is now called the River and Floodplain Management Section in the Water and Land Resources Division, he carries with him a vast knowledge of river processes, public policy and channel migration – a trove of information born of years of research and in-the-field observations.

“The body of work Terry has accomplished is significant,” Jeanne Stypula, supervising engineer in the Rivers Section and Terry’s boss, said. “He has a unique blend of skills. He understands policy, code, technical issues and of course science. He’s done a lot of heavy-lifting over the years.”


Terry is a lanky man with a gentle manner. He’s patient with non-technical people in the section, suggesting books they might read to deepen their understanding of riverine processes. He’s funny, warm and easy-going. He’s also deeply admired in the Rivers Section. At a recognition for him at a recent staff meeting, many people wiped away tears as Jeanne read a poem she had written about him.

Terry was hired as an engineer in 1992 and began working in the Green River Basin. The staff in the section numbered about a dozen, and the section was within what was then called the Department of Public Works. Since then, the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks was created – where the Rivers Section now lives – followed by the King County Flood Control District in 2008. Section staff today number around 50.

Over the course of his years, Terry has helped to shape a new and progressive approach to riverine public policy. He was part of the team that moved the county away from flood control and towards floodplain management – “a paradigm shift,” according to Steve Bleifuhs, the section manager, that recognizes flood-risk reduction doesn’t always translate into controlling a river.

“Terry’s role was to provide the scientific foundation for how channels migrate and how rivers work, which in turn influenced hazard mapping and public policy. It was his work on channel migration zones that influences so much of what we do today,” Steve said.

Much else has changed over the course of Terry’s 25 years, including a technological revolution that has altered the way he and other river scientists work. When Terry started, LiDAR – aerial imagery that uses laser to map river-basin topography – didn’t exist. Nor were GIS – Geographic Information Systems – or, for that matter, high-tech sonar-based river surveys in widespread use. Terry recalls doing river surveys by standing in the middle of a channel with a survey rod while Jeanne stood on the bank taking measurements.

A commitment to science, however, has been a constant. Throughout his 25 years, Terry said, “I’ve tried to bring scientifically based information to people, from decision-makers to property owners. I’ve also stressed the importance of understanding hazard vs. risk. Hazard in and of itself is not the issue. It’s the risk. Sometimes flood risk reduction can meaning getting people out of the way of the hazard, not controlling the hazard.”

What he will miss most about his job, he added, are those interactions when people concerned about a river’s channel migration or some other risk suddenly understood what the science was showing about the situation – those “aha moments” when someone began to see the larger picture.

“It’s deeply satisfying when people get it. For a scientist who works in the public realm, that’s what matters most,” he said.


Learn more about King County river channel migration hazards.


Shifting perspective on the impact of roads on nearby plants and animals

Environmental scientist Steven Brady sets up equipment to study the effects of roads on amphibians.

In a study published this month in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Steven Brady, an ecologist with King County’s Water and Land Resources Division’s Science and Technical Support Section and co-author Jonathan Richardson, assistant professor at Providence College, show that roads and runoff are causing rapid evolutionary change in populations of plants and wildlife living in road-adjacent habitat.

The study,”Road ecology: shifting gears toward evolutionary perspectives,”finds that for a variety of organisms—including amphibians, birds, and plants—evolutionary adaptations to road effects can arise in just a few generations.

Graphic by Steven Brady; symbols courtesy of the Integration and Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science


The finding that populations are evolving rapidly in response to negative road effects such as pollution and road kill changes the dialogue about the consequences of roads. While negative outcomes from roads have long been reported, the observation that roads can spur evolution reshapes our understanding of how roads impact natural systems.

However, the authors state that while rapid evolution to negative road effects can lessen the severity of challenges posed by roads, it does not altogether alleviate them. Indeed, for some populations, evolution appears to lessen the capacity to tolerate road effects in a process known as maladaptation. Given the pervasiveness and increasing presence of roads on the planet, developing an understanding of road-induced evolution is critical for effective conservation planning and mitigation efforts.

Takeaways from the study’s abstract:

  • Roads are ubiquitous features of the landscape, affecting 20% of the US land area; globally, roads are projected to increase 60% in length by 2050.
  • The field of road ecology has described many of the negative effects of roads but has generally failed to consider their evolutionary consequences.
  • As shown in many other fields of conservation, evolutionary perspectives often transform our understanding of the ways organisms respond to environmental change.
  • The handful of evolutionary studies associated with roads reveals both positive and negative effects, indicating that evolution can increase or decrease the resiliency of road-affected populations.
  • Evolutionary perspectives are vital if we are to improve our capacity for understanding and addressing the pervasive effects of roads.

Further reading


Amphibian survey in Cavanaugh Pond

King County ecologists were up to their hip waders in Cavanaugh Pond recently as they surveyed amphibian eggs to document what species are present as part of the Riverbend Levee Setback and Floodplain Restoration Project.

Cavanaugh Pond and the area that was the former Riverbend Mobile Home Park will be reconnected to the Cedar River to restore approximately 40 acres of floodplain, which will reduce flood risks and improve the quality and quantity of salmon habitat.

Efforts to document current species prior to construction allows the project team to plan for protection and relocation efforts, if needed. Construction to restore floodplain is anticipated to begin next summer.

Alexis Kleinbeck, with King County’s Watershed and Ecological Assessment Team, holds an amphibian egg mass found in Cavanaugh Pond
Ambystoma gracile
Northwestern Salamander (Ambystoma gracile) eggs
Pseudacris regilla
Pacific Treefrog (Pseudacris regilla) eggs
Steve Brady, with King County’s Watershed and Ecological Assessment Team, conducting field survey work.

Brushing boots really works to keep weeds on site


Why clean your equipment after a long exhausting day controlling noxious weeds? One of the primary modes of weed dispersal is seeds or other propagules hitching a ride on boots, shovels, pant legs and paws.

Brushing dirt off of boots to prevent spread of weeds

In the case of garlic mustard, the seeds are very small and dark and are not going to be visible when they are hiding in the dirt. The picture below illustrates the number of garlic mustard plants that might have been transferred to a new site, had the crews working at this site not taken the precaution of sitting down on this log and cleaning off their boots and equipment before leaving. In this case, the garlic mustard did not leave the infested site with the crew.

Garlic mustard seedlings line this log where boots were brushed after workers were in garlic mustard infested areas.

If we are to prevent noxious weeds from spreading, everyone working in weed infested sites will need to make this a part of their regular routine. The time and energy it takes to thoroughly clean your boots and equipment on site is a small price to pay for the time, expense and heartbreak of finding and controlling a whole new site. [Editor’s note: this post written by Karen Peterson, Noxious Weed Specialist with the King County Noxious Weed Control Program]

Cleaning the paws of a dog to prevent the spread of weeds

Washing mud off boots with water and a brush to stop weeds from spreading.

Semhar’s story (or, how to turn water in to work)


Abraha Semhar

Growing up in Eritrea, Semhar Abraha and her family relied on monthly tankers to fill her community’s water reservoirs.

“Everyone in our community would light up when they heard the tankers blow their horns,” said Ms. Abraha.

There was no tap water in her home and water was limited. Her family used the water from washing dishes to flush the toilets. None of it went to waste.

“I watched my mother manage our drinking water and the water for our small vegetable garden,” said Ms. Abraha. “My father is an economist and always has a way of making things more efficient.”

Ms. Abraha attributes her desire to have a career in water management to her parents.

Ms. Abraha chose to pursue an education in engineering in Eritrea where she worked on government water projects such as designing water harvesting and irrigation structures, diversion structures and water canals.

In her research she learned that Eritrea, bordered by Sudan in the west, Ethiopia in the south, and Djibouti in the southeast of the Horn of Africa, is not actually a water scarce country. But the lack of technology available made water scarce to those who live there.

“Eighty percent of the population are farmers but they aren’t using water efficiently,” said Ms. Abraha.

In Eritrea, Ms. Abraha was working as a junior engineer to help build one of the country’s biggest dams when she decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering and came to Seattle to attend the University of Washington.

After completing her degree, Ms. Abraha became the first trainee in the new Stormwater Services Engineering Internship Program. This pilot program is part of the King County Water and Land Resources Division’s equity and social justice work that is designed to train future engineers from under-represented populations in the field of engineering.

“People here are so collaborative. Everyone is willing to help you and teach you things,” said Ms. Abraha.

During her internships Ms. Abraha trained on survey, CAD and asset management projects and has accepted a 3-year position as an Engineer I in the Wastewater Treatment Division.

Ms. Abraha believes that there may come a time when she returns to Eritrea, perhaps to help build a wastewater treatment plant there, but right now she is busy here realizing her dream.

SoundGuardian powers through its first marine buoy inspection


Crossposted from Clean Water Stories

The SoundGuardian, King County’s new research vessel, made its first official marine run on August 1, 2016, and it is already providing benefits. Crews have been able to go farther faster and work in windy conditions that would have turned its predecessor around.

On a chilly December 1st afternoon, crews from the King County Environmental Lab carried out the first marine buoy inspection.King County’s marine buoys, or moorings, work around the clock collecting data that tells us what is  going on with our waters. Tracking water quality helps spot trends and guides management decisions.

Inspections make sure that the shackles and lines that help anchor marine buoys are in good condition.  They can corrode in marine environments and get damaged.  Problems with these lines can have unintended consequences, like the time in 2014 when a buoy ended up on a West Seattle beach.

The previous research vessel, the Liberty, was a workhorse that provided great service for 40 years.  But the Liberty just didn’t have the power to manage the big marine buoys  designed to weather rough waters that whip up on Puget Sound.  To re-deploy that runaway buoy beached in West Seattle, King County had to hire a contractor.

Beached buoy, 2014

The previous research vessel, the Liberty, was a workhorse that provided great service for 40 years.  But the Liberty just didn’t have the power to manage the big marine buoys  designed to weather rough waters that whip up on Puget Sound.  To re-deploy that runaway buoy beached in West Seattle, King County had to hire a contractor.

Marine contractor re-deploying the errant buoy

liberty (1).jpgThe SoundGuardian provides a lot more lifting power than the Liberty.  Today, crews can lift the buoy completely into the boat and conduct inspections on the deck. Crews don’t have to stand on the swim platform and inspect the suspended buoy. King County can deploy and retrieve buoys without hiring a contractor.

The SoundGuardian is already helping Environmental Labs get to work locations more quickly, and to fit more work in the day. With the boat’s greater lifting power, Environmental Lab crews can safely perform “health checks” and maintenance on this critical equipment that monitors the health of our waterways.crewdec1

Read more Clean Water Stories.