It’s a quiet, snowy day on the Duwamish Waterway, the thin channel that separates West Seattle from Sodo and Georgetown. Along the banks, industrial operations churn away as they have for the last century: On one side of the water, a car-crusher smashes old automobiles; on the other, a conveyor belt feeds a mountainous pile of gypsum particles, and ships laden with cargo slip beneath the bridges to West Seattle.

But amidst the busy industry, another process is at work, transforming the landscape–slowly, steadily, every moment of the day. The natural habitat that formed the landscape of the Duwamish for centuries before colonizers arrived has started to regrow, revealing a face of Seattle that hasn’t been seen in over a hundred years. And you’re invited to watch.

Industrial tenants line the banks, looking north toward the West Seattle Bridge.

Once Upon a Time …

The recent life of the Duwamish River is similar to that of many urban waterways. Descending from inland mountains down toward the city, it was once a rich, winding channel home to a complex ecosystem that provided food for Duwamish people. Berries lined the banks, fish and clams were plentiful, and the grassy wetlands drew ducks and geese. The waterway was a crucial channel for spawning salmon, which helped sustain larger animals–from bears in the mountains to orcas in the ocean.

Then settlers seized the land for industrial use in the late 1800s, burning indigenous homes and scraping away the natural landscape. The river’s convoluted bends were straightened, the bottom dredged, vegetation scraped away and banks hardened with piers and concrete walls. Heavy industry gravitated to the waterway, since it was a convenient method for transporting massive amounts of cargo, and today the shoreline is dominated by heavy industry: a cement producer, a metals recycler, a boiler fabrication plant, a maritime fueling station, shipping depots, a parking lot for airplanes.

If the loss of habitat wasn’t enough to drive wildlife away, pollution finished the job. Over the 20th century, the water and mud was poisoned with arsenic, mercury, and PCBs. Sewage overflows dumped fecal coliform into the water. The area was declared a federal “Superfund” site in 2001, but pollution has continued with substances such as 6-PPD-q, a chemical produced by car tires that was found in 2020 to be a significant source of water contamination. 

Today, only a handful of parks hint at the once-thriving landscape of the 1800s. Californians might compare the scenery to that of the Los Angeles River, a polluted concrete scar that was once a natural floodplain, now offering just glimpses of greenery and animal life.

That’s fine for the heavy industries along the banks, but they’re not the only ones who rely on the Duwamish. Just steps away from the water are neighborhoods where residents’ well-being is directly impacted by the industrial pollution; there are the indigenous cultures who have lived here for centuries, and who continue to harvest fish from the waterway to this day; and there’s the plant and animal life along the river, which once supported an ecosystem stretching hundreds of miles from the Salish Sea through Puget Sound into Elliott Bay and up into the Cascades.

So, are we stuck with this dump? Or can it be fixed?

A massive vehicle recycler on the eastern bank of the Duwamish. This facility now captures stormwater runoff.

Let the Restoration Begin 

Restoring the Duwamish Waterway is no easy task. After a century of literal entrenchment, the Duwamish is now extremely constrained on all sides. Nearly every inch of the bank is occupied with some sort of use, which makes alterations difficult from multiple perspectives: ecologically, structurally, politically, and especially economically. The businesses along the banks support somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 jobs, according to the Port of Seattle, and they account for an annual economic output of around $27 billion according to a 2009 analysis.

But those businesses, in partnership with the Port, the City, and the federal government, may hold the key to … well, if not fully restoring the natural conditions that were once present, at least mimicking them.

In recent years, the Port of Seattle has instituted an innovative program to identify areas ripe for restoration and to secure the funding to get the work done. It’s a program known formally as the “Multi-Site Wetland Mitigation and Habitat Conservation Bank,” and it’s extremely complex, but it can be boiled down to, essentially, a trading system. The basic idea is that the companies with the greatest impact on the ecosystem pay into a fund that rehabilitates the shoreline. 

In 2013, 116 entities were identified as “potentially responsible parties,” which is to say they’re on the hook for cleaning up the Duwamish because they’re likely to have caused the most damage. They include rail companies such as BNSF, municipalities such as the city of Tukwila, manufacturers such as Kelly-Moore Paint Company, agencies such as the Washington State Department of Transportation, financial institutions such as Wells Fargo Bank, and many, many more. The amount of money they’ll be expected to contribute to cleanup is still being calculated, but it’s likely to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Transporting this much cargo by water is much easier than on land.

Herring! Cod! Salmon! Eagles! 

“Any habitat we create here will have an outsized impact, because there’s so little,” says Kathleen Hurley, a senior environmental program manager at the Port. We’re standing on the deck of a small, Port-owned boat, navigating down the waterway as snow flurries fall. 

Everyone’s fingers are numb, but she points toward the western bank, where an unlikely sight awaits: Sandwiched between a Seattle Public Utilities parking lot and a train yard stacked high with cargo containers, the industrial shore is interrupted by a stretch of winding wetland, waves gently pushing at low grasses as the bank climbs up to an area thick with native trees. The sound of cormorants flapping their wings and splashing down to catch fish is audible over the growling cargo trucks on the opposite bank, and between the trees there are glimpses of picnic tables and a replica of a wooden boat structure suggesting the land’s use in centuries past.

This is həʔapus Village Park and Shoreline Habitat (the character in the middle of “həʔapus” is a glottal stop, pronounced a bit like “uh-oh” but with more of an “ah” sound). Formerly known by the much less inviting name of “Terminal 107 Park,” in the 1970s the land was destined to become a marine cargo yard like the uses to the north and south. But the discovery of archeological items stopped construction, and the land sat idle until 2000, when the Port converted it to a park in an effort to offset the impact of cargo construction less than a mile north.

That was an early version of the more formalized trading program now underway. Over the last two decades, həʔapus Village Park established an ecologically healthy zone in the middle of the channel, and crucially, it provided plant life that could be transplanted for future projects.

“We’re replicating shoreline conditions that wildlife would have enjoyed historically,” says George Blomberg, a senior environmental program manager who can generally be found halfway into a wetland with mud-covered boots and gloves. Standing with us on the deck of the boat, he points out a variety of animals drawn to the waterway’s expanding habitats: A bald eagle perches at the top of a bare tree, and purple martin nesting areas dot the nearby docks. The abundance of birds suggests a healthy fish population beneath us, and we watch as cormorants dive for herring, cod, and salmon.

Further upstream sits the Port’s latest shoreline accomplishment, the Duwamish People’s Park, an enormous undertaking and the largest habitat restoration project undertaken to date on the Duwamish. 

Covering 14 acres and over 3,000 feet of shoreline, work on the park took two decades and was completed over the summer of 2022. Over the course of construction, 55,000 tons of chemically contaminated soil was removed, 20,000 plants were introduced (many cultivated from the thriving areas of həʔapus Village Park), and the Port constructed a boat launch, public pier, viewing platform, and tribal fishing piles. It represents a 40% increase in marsh area on the Duwamish, and it’s the first real test of the Port’s “mitigation bank” whereby polluters fund the rehabilitation of the shoreline.

Though the construction was ambitious, it wasn’t the most difficult aspect of the project. We already know how to rehabilitate habitat like this, but figuring out the financing, liability, and landscaping for the project accounted for most of the time spent.

“Once you have a commitment to build one of these things, that’s the fun part,” Blomberg grins. 

It’s clear how much fun Blomberg is having. He joined the Port in 1985 and hasn’t slowed down since. That’s fortunate, since restoration work is now ramping up, with projects stretching from Smith Cove (where eel grass has been thriving) to Terminal 25 (currently a paved lot near the West Seattle Low Bridge, but destined to become an estuary) to a site in Auburn (where 34 acres await conversion to freshwater wetland). 

həʔapus Village Park & Shoreline Habitat, now open for visitors.

Dig into Dirt Corps 

Much of the work to convert this land is launched from an unassuming little building just northeast of White Center, a former pizza place that the Port has converted into the Duwamish River Community Center. The parking lot has become a makeshift plant nursery, filled with plastic buckets where grasses can safely sprout before being transplanted to sites around the region. Inside, a group of young workers plan the day’s work, which can range from pulling out invasive plants to monitoring propagation experiments to identifying new opportunities for habitat restoration. 

They’re a part of Dirt Corps, a South Seattle-based community organization that provides vocational training with an emphasis on underserved groups, focusing on building sustainable infrastructure. But construction is only part of their work.

“A big focus of our program is understanding the history,” says Zara Sedore-Mallin, one of the Dirt Corps workers. It’s not just a labor program, they explain; it’s also an opportunity to learn about the past uses of the area, and to use that knowledge to create a more just and sustainable landscape. 

On the day of one recent visit, the crew is testing some new methods for propagating sedge (a bushy grass-like type of flora) using multiple techniques. Half of the plants installed at one site along the Green River have died, but those planted by Dirt Corps have lasted significantly longer. 

“Normally the sedge is purchased from a nursery or a different watershed,” explains Michelle Ryder, another Dirt Corps worker, “so we don’t know where it came from.” In contrast, Dirt Corps gathered plants directly from restored areas along the banks of the Duwamish. “It’s been here for thousands of years.”

“We’re using the marsh vegetation that grows there as a donor site,” says the Port’s Blomberg. He gathered seeds and rhizomes over the summer of 2022, and he is now transplanting root masses to test beds in the parking lot of the Community Center to see which ones thrive. 

“They’re the hardest working plants in the food web,” he says, standing proudly amidst the plants. 

The Dirt Corps crew is pretty hard-working as well, unafraid to get their hands dirty and work up a sweat in pursuit of a cleaner community. “The Duwamish is utterly disrupted,” Blomberg says as he supervises the activity. “We’ve lost 99% of the habitat.” To bring it back from the brink, he says, “we need folks with expertise to handle plants like these.”

It’s a much more complex suite of skills than simply repotting a houseplant. Restoring habitat requires an understanding of how to locate donor plants, breeding resilient offspring, protecting them from being devoured by animals eager for healthy options (as happened at one early installation before goose netting was installed), and making adjustments to sites for the years that it takes for everything to fully take root.

For the Dirt Corps workers, it’s fulfilling work. “I worked minimum wage jobs for years,” says Sedore-Mallin. Restoring habitat “gives you the ability to see yourself not as an agent of harm … [it’s] being able to make a living wage doing something that really matters.”

Ryder agreed. “I came from a long history of customer service work,” she says. “I wanted to change careers but also do something I believe in.”

Next to her, Alexa Antalan is looking forward to the job opportunities that this work will open up, particularly when it comes to building green stormwater infrastructure (GSI), a practice expected to expand in the coming years. “Normally [GSI requires] an engineering education,” she says. But this hands-on vocation training “is making it accessible to people who don’t have access to the education I was able to get.”

A Boeing parking lot. Is this really the best use of a waterfront?

Restoring the Balance

So, what’s next? The Terminal 25 project is an area of particular interest at the moment. Just a few blocks from Sodo amenities like an indoor climbing facility, an animal shelter, a heavily used bike path, and a fishing area, T25 is still just an empty slab of pavement. Over the last century, it’s been a cargo staging area, a cold storage facility, and a manufacturing plant. 

But soon, the Port expects that their habitat-credits program will allow them to remove nearly a thousand timber piles that were treated with toxic creosote. With them will go the massive concrete slabs, a maze of pipes, and miscellaneous debris that’s likely older than anyone still alive. They’ll excavate 100,000 cubic yards of dirt to restore a once-thriving tidal zone, and then introduce a quarter million new plants.

Terminal 25 (it’ll probably get a new name, too) is seen as a key waypoint for migrating salmon, which have historically preferred that area of the Duwamish when leaving their spawning grounds. Currently, their path is blocked by T25’s debris and docks, and the fish have nowhere to feed. But once work is complete in the next few years, they’ll have a luxurious new rest stop custom-built to their needs, with plenty of shelter and calorie-rich insects. And as the salmon health improves, the hope is that they will have a cascading effect through the food chain.

There’s currently no timeline for T25 rehabilitation, which is still in its earliest stages. But there’s no need to wait years to visit the Duwamish and see the impact of habitat restoration: The port and City of Seattle have already begun partnering on an array of parks along the water that you can visit right now. Self-guided walking tours available, with more coming online every year.

Strolling through one such park, the sbəq̓ʷaʔ Diagonal Ave Park and Shoreline Habitat, it’s hard not to be struck by the strange patchwork quality of the current Duwamish. This little carveout of nature along the water is lovely, with native snowberries sprouting alongside heavy logs. Someone’s walking a dog along a path shaded by evergreens, and you can hear the lapping of the water as the tide comes in.

You can also hear the steady roar of Con Global Industries, a Port tenant just to the north, and the park is overshadowed by the large Army Corps of Engineers facility to the south. As has been the case for the last century, the Duwamish remains caught in a tug-of-war between uses. But now, after a century of vanishing habitat, the original waterway is finally making a return, and the balance is starting to change.