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Sustainability group plans for Volunteer Park include rainwater system for conservatory, recycled water for wading pool

Volunteer Park wading pool, circa 1970s (Image: Seattle Municipal Archives)

A small group has big plans for an environmentally responsible overhaul of Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park including a project to put rainwater to use in the landmark conservatory and a plan that could eventually make the park’s popular wading pool more sustainable.

The Volunteer Park Sustainability Coalition will has been revamping projects geared towards making use of summer weather, rain or shine. The coalition plans to make its Free Effective Rainwater Now (FERN) project an educational experience for the public along with furthering plans to improve the park’s wading pool pump system.

“The rainwater harvesting concept has existed for probably five years at this point, but using it as an educational tool is a much newer aspect that we’re trying to work into the project,” said Sejal Soni, a volunteer with the VPSC.

According to Soni, rainwater runoff flows from the conservatory and upper greenhouse roofs to the east side of the lower greenhouse. The water then flows into the city’s combined sewers. Currently, the conservatory plants are watered with treated city drinking water, so project FERN would decrease utility costs funded by city taxes.

Project FERN entails intercepting the runoff before it reaches the ground and then sewers, piping the water downhill to the west side of the lower greenhouse to an underground cistern. Water would be pumped from the underground cistern to two above ground cistern for storage, and then finally into a pressurization tank so it can be used for watering conservatory plants.

Although the project is cost effective in the future, building FERN requires funding the VPSC does not have. In June, the VPSC learned their application for a grant for FERN through the King County Waterworks Grant Program was rejected. Members of the VPSC plan to take their fundraising strategy back to the drawing board.

“It’s something that’s difficult because the way the conservatory is set up raises questions of where we would put some kind of display,” said Soni. “The public wouldn’t be able to go look at the rainwater being harvested, and really get a feel for the project, and maybe that’s part of why the proposal didn’t move forward.”

While the VPSC plans to examine how FERN’s design is more conducive to educating the park-goers about sustainability, adjusting a completed design is pointless when education could take another avenue. The public could also learn about FERN through outreach efforts in search of private funding for the project.

“We’re still looking into private sources of funding because we realized the parks are focused on focused on other things besides sustainability, like accessibility and maintenance,” Soni said. “Public funding would be hard to come by.”

Although project FERN is VPSC’s highest fundraising priority, the VPSC has also been working on a project geared towards making the park’s wading pool more sustainable. According to Soni, every wading pool in the city has to be filled with tap water and drained each day it is used. Chlorine also must be added to the pool multiple times a day, meaning the water must be treated by wastewater treatment plants after it is drained.

The VPSC wants to install a pump and UV filters in the wading pool, so the pool would be filtered and disinfected with UV throughout the day. Unfortunately, the pump clocks in at $1 million, meaning it is less likely than FERN to receive funding.

Soni noted FERN and the wading pool project’s timelines are unclear, yet the VPSC has been experimenting with promoting environmental education at Conservatory events.

“The Conservatory is the nonprofit that runs and has the funds educational workshops, but they’re generally focused on indoor gardening and plant based activities that bring in revenue for the conservatory for other programming,” Soni said. “These events have not been focused on environmental education before, but it is something we are trying to get out there more.”

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