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Downtown Bellingham to sprout rain gardens

The city of Bellingham is promising some rain gardens in the downtown area, and is looking for business people to keep an eye on them once they're planted.

With help from a state grant, the city plans to install 36 curbside rain gardens in the eastern part of downtown to cleanse runoff from 90 urban acres that drain into Whatcom Creek.

"They're going to have nasty, dirty stormwater coming into them," explained Rose Lathrop, Green Building and Smart Growth manager at Sustainable Connections.

On Wednesday, Sept. 25, the Downtown Bellingham Partnership will host Sustainable Connections and city staff at a public meeting about the program, and will recruit local businesses to become stewards of the rain gardens. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at The Leopold Retirement Residence, 1224 Cornwall Ave.

A $600,000 grant from the Washington Department of Ecology is paying for the stormwater portion of the project. In recent years, the agency has shifted its focus for dealing with runoff from expensive treatment facilities to so-called "low-impact development" methods, including rain gardens, green roofs, swales and pervious paving.

Bellingham already has several rain gardens, including ones at Cornwall Avenue and Maple Street that will be planted soon.

"The state regulations are really pushing municipalities to do things like this," said Freeman Anthony, project engineer on the rain gardens for Bellingham's Public Works Department. "They've lost faith in large, centralized facilities."

Rain gardens capture, cool and cleanse runoff, and allow it to infiltrate the soil. Without them, dirtier and warmer stormwater flows into Whatcom Creek, which has problems with high temperatures and high fecal coliform levels, Anthony said.

The downtown area where the gardens will be located is bounded roughly by Whatcom Creek on the north, Ellis Street on the east, Holly Street on the south, and parts of Garden, Magnolia and Commercial streets on the west.

Most of the rain gardens will be near street corners, on downslopes with existing catch basins to handle overflow. The gardens will be installed in the parking strip, with protective curbing on the traffic side, and will measure about seven feet wide and 10 to 20 feet long.

Perhaps 10 or more parking spaces will be removed to make room for the rain gardens, Anthony said. The loss of parking was one of several factors considered when choosing the locations, and several locations were changed after adjacent businesses expressed concern, he said.

"We've been very choosy about this," Anthony said.

In some cases, pedestrian improvements, notably bulbed-out intersections, will be installed along with the rain gardens. The gardens will be filled with nice-looking, drought-tolerant plants no taller than two feet.

At the meeting Wednesday, downtown business people can sign up to become stewards of a rain garden. While the city will install the gardens and a contractor will handle watering until the plants are well-established, stewards will help by removing trash, weeds and debris, and by keeping an eye on the garden.

Stewards will be publicly recognized for their help and will have an honorary plaque installed at their rain garden, said Lathrop, at Sustainable Connections. About a dozen businesses have already agreed to participate, she said.

Work on the gardens is expected to start next spring, with plantings in place by the end of April.


- For details about the downtown rain gardens, go to the City of Bellingham website,, and search for "Downtown Improvement Gardens."

- Training about rain gardens for landscapers, engineers and other professionals will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 21 and 22 at WSU Whatcom Extension, 1000 N. Forest St., Bellingham. To register, go to, go to "get involved" and click on "events."