Volunteers on the shore of the Duwamish River and in kayaks and canoes clean up trash in and along the river

Duwamish Alive! Coalition: Stewards of the River

by Patheresa Wells

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The Duwamish River’s (Dxwdəw) history is as complex as the river and its watershed. Over time, it has changed, much like the land and people around it. Though it was once a vital ecosystem home to the Duwamish people, as the area’s urbanization occurred over the years, the river and its watershed became polluted. Eventually, the pollution caused the Lower Duwamish Waterway to be designated an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site. These sites include “the nation’s most contaminated sites,” which are targeted for investigation and cleanup.

But long before white settlers came to the area, there were always stewards of the river; people committed to the interconnectedness of humans and the health of the river — a river that not only provides a home to fish and wildlife, but that also sustains the land where we live. Today, a collaborative approach to the river’s health brings numerous organizations together as Duwamish Alive! Coalition (DAC). DAC works with multiple organizations, including community groups; local businesses; federal, State, local, and Tribal governments; and all who share a “common mission: to protect and restore the health and habitat of the Duwamish River and its watershed for both wildlife and communities.”

Using their hands or shovels, volunteers plant willows and sedge along the Duwamish River for the juvenile salmon habitat
At Tukwila’s North Wind’s Weir, volunteers plant willows and sedge for the juvenile salmon habitat along the river. (Photo: Sharon Leishman)

For DAC, the ecosystem of the Duwamish River is directly connected to the communities living within the river’s watershed and the organizations that work to improve its health. Before forming the coalition, these organizations would each be focused on their respective areas, some dealing with water quality, others concentrating on habitat recovery, without much coordination between the vital work they were doing. Sharon Leishman, director of DAC, says the coalition, like the river, is a sort of ecosystem where “the organizations that specialize in water quality work closely with the habitat and work closely with those who are more focused on community health because it all is so interconnected.”

Bringing the community into the mix has been an integral part of the work DAC does. Since its first Earth Day volunteer event in 2006, it has held two cleanup events each year in April and October, inviting the community to come out to numerous locations throughout the watershed. Volunteers at these events have the opportunity to help restore the watershed and learn how vital its habitats are in the health of our communities. They remove debris, pull invasive weeds, plant native plants, and see how a hands-on approach to restoration benefits these sites. 

Education is a big part of what DAC and its partner organizations do. Leishman shared that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people were reminded of the healing element of getting out in nature. For this reason, DAC created the “Green-Duwamish Guide Book,” a self-guided exploration of the watershed that allows people to explore these sites, often found within their backyards. And the coalition holds monthly meetings throughout the year, allowing locals to get involved in its work.

Volunteers in the Delridge Wetlands working on a stormwater-filtration project
Neighborhood residents worked to purchase the Delridge Wetlands from Seattle City Light to create an outdoor classroom for the nearby Louisa Boren STEM school. The school and volunteers help reduce flooding problems the neighborhood had by providing filtration of stormwater before it enters Longfellow Creek. (Photo: Tyler Yeomans)

DAC wants those living along the Duwamish River’s complex watershed to realize that they are stewards of the river. The coalition credits one of its partners, Duwamish River Community Coalition (DRCC), with the shift in building a more holistic approach to the river, its watershed, and the community. DRCC is focused on cleanup along the 5.5-mile-long Superfund site, which includes the South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods. Leishman says when partners like DRCC speak with local and State leaders about the challenges facing their community, which is low-income and ethnically diverse, it benefits all living in the Duwamish Valley. There are common challenges all up and down this river system. Those living in South Park and Georgetown are connected not only by the watershed with those living in Auburn and Kent, but also by similar issues impacting how we live and how our communities thrive. 

Another DAC partner, Puget Soundkeeper, encourages people to get active while working to clean up our waterways by offering kayak tours to remove trash. It also helps facilitate group cleanup events where local groups and businesses can arrange a team volunteer event. This is a great way to encourage commitment to the health of the Duwamish River, its watershed, our Earth, and each other. 

All of the Duwamish Alive! Coalition partners are working year-round on different projects to restore the Duwamish River. DAC wants people to realize we are all stewards. As Leishman said, “We are all stewards of this river. We are stewards of the Puget Sound. Our daily choices we make have an impact, for better or for worse.” And stewardship starts by getting active in your community, volunteering, and educating yourself. Leishman says the heart of the coalition is acknowledging the link between being stewards of our environment and being stewards of each other. This link, she says, is how to make the changes needed to benefit the Earth and honor the fact that the Duwamish River’s health and watershed are tied to our well-being. 

To find ways you can get involved in the stewardship of the Duwamish River, visit the Duwamish Alive! Coalition website for more information on the coalition and its partners. And visit the EarthDay.org website to find other ways you can support Earth Day efforts.

Patheresa Wells is a Queer poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.

📸 Featured Image: At a recent cleanup event at həʔapus Village Park and Shoreline Habitat, the Duwamish Alive! Coalition and volunteers removed over 600 pounds of trash from the river with the help of kayaks and canoes. (Photo: Sharon Leishman)

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