Kolodziej, Peter Featured in SIFF Documentary on Seattle's Thornton Creek

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Center for Urban Waters' Ed Kolodziej and Kathy Peter talk about how daylighting and re-engineering restored the stream's ability to clean stormwater and host salmon.

(Above: A still from Engineering With Nature. Associate Professor Ed Kolodziej, at right, is interviewed by Katherine Lynch of Seattle Public Utilities.)

If Thornton Creek could tell a story, it would not only be surprising— it would be surprisingly good.

To help tell that story, about a once-polluted and neglected creek that is becoming a flourishing home for spawning salmon, the documentary Engineering with Nature - An Ode to Water, Wood, and Stone was selected to premiere at the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) on Saturday, June 8.

The 70-minute documentary was directed by environmental filmmaker Shelly Solomon and is distributed through Leaping Frog Films. It describes the four-year effort by Seattle Public Utilities to restore Thornton Creek, Seattle’s largest and most urbanized stream with 18 miles of waterway and a 12-square-mile watershed.

Drs. Edward Kolodziej and Kathy Peter were filmed on location last year discussing a water quality study of the creek they performed for Seattle Public Utilities in 2017. Kolodziej holds a joint appointment in UW Tacoma’s Division of Sciences & Mathematics and UW’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in Seattle. Peter is a research scientist at UW Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters with a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from the University of Iowa.

The restoration of Seattle's Thornton Creek involved many partners. Pictured at left is Paul Bakke of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with, second from right, Katherine Lynch of Seattle Public Utilities. Photo credit Ann Froschauer/USFWS.

For decades, most of Thornton Creek ran through culverts or dredged channels. The SPU project daylit extensive portions of the creek, improving flood control and restoring the interface between surface and groundwater, called the hyporheic zone (HZ). Kolodziej, Peter and other researchers, using analytical equipment at the Center for Urban Waters, set out to learn whether an engineered HZ could reduce or remove pollutants that have been found to be harmful to salmon and people.

So far, the researchers have found that levels of hundreds of organic pollutants found in the rejuvenated creek during storms have been reduced by over 50%. They have published the results of their examination in Water Research.

“The filmmakers are very excited,” Kolodziej said about the film being selected for SIFF. “It’s quite difficult to get into SIFF, as there is a low acceptance rate.”

Four years in the making, the documentary highlights the success of Seattle Public Utilities’ Thornton Creek Project. Initiated to control neighborhood flooding, the effort entailed rebuilding 1,600 feet of the creek’s channel. Workers realigned the channel, tore out the fill from development and repositioned the creek back into its natural flood plain. Today, adjacent neighborhoods no longer flood, water quality has improved, and, most surprisingly, Chinook salmon have returned to the creek to spawn.

According to the filmmakers, Leaping Frog Films, “This visionary project successfully demonstrates a fresh new approach to urban land use planning, storm water treatment, water quality management, and stream restoration, all of which have ‘real-life’ implications for coping with the increasing effects of climate change and urbanization.”

Free film premiere

The film will premiere at the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival on Saturday, June 8, 2 p.m. at Seattle Central Library, located at 1000 4th Ave., Seattle. The premiere was selected for a free public screening, but it’s best to arrive early as tickets (for 260 seats) will be given out on a first-come first-served basis. The doors open at 1:30 p.m., but the filmmaker recommends arriving between 12:30 and 1 p.m. Following the premiere, a Q&A session with key project participants will include Kolodziej. Learn more about the free public screening.

Written by: 
Brooke Fisher and John Burkhardt / May 23, 2019
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu