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American Society of Landscape Architects


August 2007 Issue

The Feel of a Watershed
The Cedar River Watershed Education Center teaches by sensory experience. Should it do more?

By Lisa Owens Viani

The Feel of a Watershed Nancy Rottle, ASLA

At the Cedar River Watershed Education Center in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, about 35 miles east of downtown Seattle, the urban world has disappeared. It’s a rainy April morning, and the sounds—quick, then slow, sporadic, then steady—of the drops falling on the rain drums amid the vine maples, mosses, and ferns of the “forest court” are mesmerizing. Pacific chorus frogs call from the side of the stream that flows through the forest court. The smells of red cedar, alder, and damp forest floor permeate the air. From the top of the ridge, Rattlesnake Lake gleams teal blue far below; the Cascades emerge from behind the mist, towering in the distance. On the other side, a steep, densely wooded hill rises sharply from the road. Everything is green, vibrant, and glistening. The center’s few buildings, connected by covered walkways, blend seamlessly into the wooded hillsides with their green roofs and natural wood siding.

Owned and operated by Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), the center is designed to educate people about the source of their drinking water. The Cedar River provides Greater Seattle with 60 to 70 percent of its drinking water. It is impressive that the center is the product of a public utility’s outreach efforts. Such educational centers are rare; possibly the only other such center in the United States is the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center outside Philadelphia.

To preserve the pristine nature of the upper watershed and protect water quality, 91,000 acres of watershed land owned by SPU were closed to unsupervised recreation in the late 1980s, according to SPU’s public and cultural programs manager, Ralph Naess. At that time, Seattle’s city council and mayor, worried that ratepayers would object to having the watershed so restricted, ordered SPU to come up with a secondary use policy for wildlife management, ecological forestry, cultural resources, and public education—to develop programs that would allow some limited access to the watershed and educate people about it. When SPU came back to the city council with the $650,000 estimate for building a watershed education center, “the city council said, ‘Whoa, are you sure the community wants this?’” recalls Naess. To make sure there was buy in, the city told SPU to form a “friends of the Cedar River watershed” group, which it did. The Friends of the Cedar River then raised about 10 percent of the $650,000 cost, says Naess. The center, designed by architects and landscape architects Jones & Jones of Seattle, opened to the public in October 2001. On average, it is visited by 30,000 people each year.

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