Generations of Tacomans have enjoyed the quiet shores, wide grassy lawn and tall trees near Wapato Lake.
Like many urban lakes, Wapato has its problems. Polluted runoff from streets and lawns has lowered the lake’s dissolved oxygen, which fish need to live, and increased the frequency of toxic algae blooms. The lake is so polluted that people haven’t been able to swim there for years — and don’t even think about drinking the water.
City leaders are now encouraging area residents to pick up habits that could eventually benefit their neighborhood lake – and lower their trash and energy bills at the same time.
The initiative, called Healthy Homes, Healthy Neighborhoods, started a year ago and involves several agencies.
Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello said the initiative has reached out to about 2,000 residents near the lake to talk with them about ways to prevent flushing chemicals into the lake. Methods include planting more trees, practicing natural lawn care and using rain barrels.
Lifelong Tacoma resident Paul Williams recently took a friend to the park to show her the its forested beauty. Century-old Douglas fir trees shade the eastern banks of the lake and a nearby playground.
Williams said he’s aware of some of the lake’s problems and past attempts to clean it up.
“You used to swim out here,” said Williams, a 1974 Lincoln High School graduate. “You know how high school kids are. They’re kind of crazy.”
Mello said he envisions Wapato Lake as a neighborhood version of Seattle’s Green Lake, with people swimming and kayaking in its calm waters on a warm summer day.
“It’s a great jewel,” Mello said of Wapato Lake. “I would love to go swimming in that lake some day.”
Past efforts have reduced bacteria levels in the lake, said Ray Hanowell, an environmental health specialist with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, which is one of the partners working on the Healthy Homes initiative. Yes, there is a toxic algae bloom on the lake right now, but it’s smaller than past blooms.
Metro Parks Tacoma has cracked down on residents who feed the animals, including Canada geese.
“Before that there would be goose feces everywhere, really wall-to-wall,” Hanowell said. “And the water itself would be quite cloudy.”
The city’s latest effort shows signs of more progress. More than 30 people have signed up for a class to learn how to install a rain garden, a low-lying area planted with native shrubs and grasses, said Kristin Lynett, manager of the city’s Office of Environmental Policy and Sustainability. Water filters through the rain garden, removing many pollutants that would otherwise flow to the lake.
For homes that qualify, the city will design and provide technical resources for so-called “rain garden hosts,” she said.
“Not every property has the right mix of soil and structural elements to make it happen,” Lynett said.
The city is conducting soil tests and aims to install rain gardens in the surrounding neighborhood by next year. Last week, the City Council approved rebates of up to $2,000 for homeowners whose properties are good locations for rain gardens.
But conversations with residents weren’t just about Wapato Lake, Mello said. An AmeriCorps member hired to reach out to residents also talked about replacing inefficient wood stoves, weatherization and the city’s Tagro program, which converts the solids from wastewater into compost for gardening.
Encouraging residents to adopt different habits is the first step toward improving overall community health, said Mello, who is also executive director of the Pierce Conservation District, another Healthy Homes partner.
Residents with wood stoves were told of a program that helps to pay for a newer, cleaner wood stove, Lynett said. Of 55 homes with wood stoves that are considered heavy polluters, 18 homeowners replaced them with cleaner-burning models, she said.
The initiative also seeks to keep food waste out of residents’ garbage cans, whether by encouraging the use of Tacoma’s food recycling program or through the free installation of garbage disposals in residents’ kitchens. A disposal manufacturer has agreed to provide and install 100 garbage disposals.
Reducing garbage volumes helps shave residents’ utility bills and save the city money on landfill tipping fees.
“It’s important not only for the environment to not send food waste to the landfill, but it’s also good for people’s pocketbook to not send food to the landfill,” Mello said.
Healthy Homes, Healthy Neighborhoods has so far cost about $20,000, Mello said. Expansion to another Tacoma neighborhood has been delayed because the federal sequestration has put a crimp on the number of AmeriCorps volunteers available.
Officials say they hope the efforts will eventually lead to better water quality in Wapato Lake.
“I think it’s an amazing signature park that we have in our community,” Mello said. “It has a lot of history. It’s absolutely beautiful. There’s something about us human beings that are attracted to water.”Kate Martin: email@example.com 253-597-8542