Photo by Chris Rodriguez: Here's what the chamber lawn looked like before rain gardens were put in.
Photo by Chris Rodriguez: Here's what the chamber lawn looked like before rain gardens were put in.

The Snohomish County Conservation District’s initiative to put more rain gardens in cities has touched the area’s business community.

The Monroe Chamber of Commerce is the first organization of its kind in the region to transform its lawn into a natural stormwater storage and filtration system. The district’s Veterans Conservation Corps crew did the groundwork and volunteers planted the garden.

“It is very special,” said Kate Riley, the conservation district’s community engagement program manager. “This was our first chamber project, and the owners of the building are the masons, so that building is one of the most historic buildings in Monroe.”

The Freemasons of Sultan and Monroe’s joint lodge were very supportive, Riley said. She said they wanted the district staff to transform all of their lawn space into a garden, which ended up being two separate gardens covering 200 square feet.

For the chamber’s project, the district used funds secured through a Washington State University grant awarded for efforts that will engage the Latino population. The two-year cycle was for $100,000.

The volunteers that came to help plant the garden beds this month represent the area’s largest minority community, Riley said. The district staff worked with the Monroe Public Library, the Edmond’s Community College Latino Education Training Institute and other organizations for outreach, she said.

Monroe has one of the highest populations of people who are Latino and Hispanic in Snohomish County, Riley said.

Ten percent of Snohomish County’s population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the most recent census data. That number is closer to 20 percent for Monroe, according to the City of Monroe.

Riley said the same stormwater the garden is meant to prevent from entering the area’s tributaries was draining into the building’s foundation. The small-scale urban agriculture has a layered impact, she said.

Ultimately, the goal is to protect salmon and orcas in the region’s waterways, Riley said. The stormwater draining off of people’s homes and businesses enters the habitat, and threatens the keystone species, she said.

“It takes all of us to do something on our own property, and that is what the chamber wanted to exemplify,” Riley said.

The rain gardens also filter surface water, which is the main source for drinking water in the area, Riley said. Rain gardens, which are built on a slight slope, contain the water. The plants and soil clean the water, which eventually becomes groundwater, she said.

“All the plants and microbes kind of do the work there,” Riley said.

The projects can also sometimes solve unexpected issues.

Runoff was draining into the mason’s building foundation, Riley said. By diverting the water, as planned, the integrity of the structure was improved, she said.

She said the district supports development of about 40 similar projects in the county each year. The organization has offered these programs for some time, but staff is working to impact new groups, she said.

Lawns aren’t actually that supportive of the environment, Riley said. They take large amounts of chemicals, fertilizers and water to look good, and grass doesn’t add much. Cities need more nature, she said.

The chamber’s rain garden is a pollinator garden, Riley said. That means the plants and materials are incorporated in such a way that support species like bees and butterflies, which many experts say are in danger of disappearing, she said.

Businesses are such an important piece because they have so much opportunity for community engagement and education, Riley said. She believes chamber executive director Yvonne Gallardo-Van Ornam has that vision for Monroe.

“I think this is a great way to show the business community that we walk the walk we talk,” she said. “We want to show our local community that we are not just interested in growing business and the economy but also do our part to keep Monroe healthy and environmentally grounded.”

The conservation district also has a hand in a number of other local farming and conservation projects, such as the Lawns to Lettuce program event held earlier this year. The program helps homeowners build an “edible food oasis” on their property.

Monroe was also targeted because it is categorized as a food desert. That means residents have a hard time accessing fresh, nutritious produce.

The conservation district partnered with Housing Hope last fall to connect low-income families with skills and resources, so they can get fresh fruits and vegetables right at home. Housing Hope is a Snohomish County nonprofit that provides supports for struggling populations.

At this month’s event, participants were also taught to make and take home their own rain barrels, Riley said. The conservation district will work with businesses and homeowners who want to build rain gardens and help identify funding sources, she said.

The organization covered the roughly $5,000 it cost to install the chamber’s rain garden, she said.