There was a big spotlight on the plastics in the oceans when Earth Day 2018 made the case to end plastic waste. Similarly, World Oceans Day is working to prevent plastic pollution and encourage solutions for a healthy ocean.

We spent some time with Ellen Southard of Salmon-Safe in preparation for World Oceans Day. Salmon-Safe works to keep urban and agricultural watersheds clean enough for native salmon to spawn and thrive. Salmon-Safe is one of the nation’s leading regional eco labels, and it is on a mission to transform land management practices so Pacific Salmon can thrive in West Coast watersheds. We’ve had the pleasure of working with Salmon-Safe on projects including the Expedia headquarters expansion in Seattle. Salmon-Safe is the only rating system focused entirely on watershed health.

Here are some of the key takeaways from our conversation:

The business case for including oceans in the sustainability matrix

There is a significant bottom line advantage to protecting water. In Washington state, for example, 200,000 jobs are tied to commercial and recreational fishing and orca tourism. That amounts to $14.5B annually in terms of income for the state.


The business case for building owners depends on the site context and jurisdictions. Developers can find different incentives based on their location. For example, there is a FAR bonus in Redmond, Washington if a project is developed to Salmon Safe standards; and in Shoreline, Washington, developers can benefit from a 50-70% reduction in permitting fees if they develop to Salmon-Safe standards alongside a green building rating system. There are also government funds such as the EPA Clean Water Act Nonpoint Source Grant, which incentivizes and supports a variety of activities to improve water cleanliness. More EPA funding opportunities can be found here.

In addition to the funding and incentives, there is an operational business case for better water management. Larger scale sites like university campuses and airports can see significant operational savings, primarily from a chemical perspective. Property owners and managers can save a lot of money on chemicals that are used to manage a site such as fertilizer, pesticides, and pre-emergent. A more sustainable solution also adds to the sustainability of a property’s bottom line. In addition to the chemical savings, there are also savings in utility costs when developers focus on water efficiency.

Increased rain and the growth of city populations are both paving over open space and challenging infrastructure, resulting in disastrous sewage spills like the one at Westpoint in Seattle in 2017. After 122 days of rain the overworked wastewater facility could not function properly.  Onsite bioretention reduces flow to CSOs (combined sewer outflow), which then reduces stress on infrastructure. Cities are increasingly aware of the business case for better water management, and they are providing incentives as well as deterrents.

Even if you are landlocked, you impact the oceans – the oceans receive water from everywhere.

The WA governor’s executive order for orcas acknowledges that it will take the entire state, including the farmers in Eastern Washington – where water makes its way to the Columbia and out to the Pacific. You can be in a dry arid place and your business practices can still impact the oceans.

Best practices to protect salmon and the oceans


Water needs to be clean when it makes its way to the sea – this is the most important thing to understand. Clean means that aquatic species can survive in it – quality, temperature, and Ph perspective – all these are necessary if we are going to protect the oceans.

We need architects and engineers to influence their developer clients to identify practical strategies to treat water before it gets to waterways and oceans. When sites are designed and operated to the standard of pre-development – to mimic what nature does already – we can keep that dirty runoff from making it to the ocean and causing acidification among other things.

Ideally real estate developers would take an aggregate approach, where continuous parcels of land are developed and managed to the same standard. But outside of a master plan, individual sites can still have a positive impact.  Hardscaping, for example, prevents nature from doing what it does best. But developers can produce sustainable sites that provide ecosystem services in an urban environment even in one-off cases.

A few awesome examples:

  • The Issaquah Terrace Community in Issaquah Highlands was sending 100% of its stormwater to lake Sammamish without treatment, meaning that water headed to the ocean with all the chemicals, waste byproducts, and pollution that it started with. After working with Salmon-Safe the Terrace Community has addressed water treatment and management, only 18% of their water is untreated, and an impressive 82% is being treated onsite through bio retention.
  • Expedia is developing a large waterfront corporate campus. The company is taking the uncommon (but awesome) step of inoculating its soil on the site. Expedia’s team collected several soil samples from their healthiest soil and collected the soil with the best spores. Then they set aside 30 cubic yards of spore-rich topsoil, which will be used to inoculate the new soil that comes on site. Now the new soil will be rich with healthy local spores, and the new plants will have a better chance of surviving because the soil is more specific to the local biology. Soil inoculation is inexpensive and it takes advantage of on-site resources. Healthy waterfront plants improve water runoff and make for healthy local waters.
  • There are several examples throughout the region where contractors are building rain gardens as they start construction. Rather than expensive mechanical/electrical systems that cost a lot of money and eat energy, they are building the rain gardens in advance to manage construction storm water on site. Again, mimicking nature’s process, they are saving money, and energy; and when the site is occupied the developers have a lush landscape that is already matured. Everyone wins.
  • Majora Carter with Sustainable South Bronx has accomplished significant river restoration in the Bronx by turning several brownfields into parks. During Hurricane Sandy the Bronx performed better than many other places in New York City, partly because of the park restoration. The parks became giant bioswales and rain gardens during the storm swells, which is a better solution than armored sea walls and shorelines.

Keeping the oceans healthy isn’t just a task for waterfront communities. Every waterway in the world feeds into the oceans, and every ocean in the world plays a critical role in the global economy, and the health and vitality of earth’s inhabitants. Real estate developers don’t always understand how they impact receiving water bodies, but they do!

So, whether your project is near an ocean, a sound, a river, canal, passage, bay, creek, stream, or subterranean reservoir, you are playing a part in the health of the ocean!


PS: Why should you care about salmon? 

Salmon are what’s called an Indicator Species, which means that the health of the salmon is an excellent indicator of the health of an overall ecosystem. Indicator species are the proverbial canary in the coalmine (unless you are in a coalmine – in which case the canary is the indicator species and is literally a canary in the coalmine).

According to Animal Wise, salmon are commonly identified as an indicator species in many ecosystems around the world, especially in North America. Salmon heath indicates the overall health of the Pacific Rim, for example, which has been impacted by deforestation, creation of dams, and pollution. The species is also an indicator for the Greater Vancouver wetland ecosystem.  And according to the Wild Salmon Center, at least 137 different animal species depend on the nutrients that salmon provide – when you protect salmon, you protect forests, food, water, communities, and economies.


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