Photo Essay

SoDo's Duwamish River Is Visibly Healing

Labeled one of the most toxic sites in the U.S., two decades of clean-up have the river doing better.

Photography by David Ryder By Stefan Milne October 21, 2020 Published in the Fall 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Photo: Trees along the Duwamish.

Many Seattleites live in this city and hardly see the river that birthed it. Perhaps, crossing the South Park Bridge, we glimpse water beyond the railings. Otherwise the Duwamish River flows mostly hidden between the Industrial District’s shipping containers and cranes and docks. Even before colonists arrived, the estuary was “an industrial area” for the Duwamish Tribe, says James Rasmussen, a former tribal council member and currently the Superfund manager for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. “This was where we harvested so much for the villages to thrive.” He started his work in part because he grew up learning that the fish and wildlife and river were part of his family.

Even after a century of commercial pollution—which had the EPA label it one of the most toxic sites in the U.S. in 2001—salmon still run in the river. Residents of adjacent neighborhoods like South Park fish there. And, slowly, due to two decades of cleanup, the river is healing.

So is our relationship with it. A new book, The River That Made Seattle by BJ Cummings, tells the Duwamish’s long story. And on October 27, the Port of Seattle will announce new, community-selected names for the six parks that dot the river’s shores (currently called things like Terminal 107 Park). Rasmussen says that’s an important step to connect the river with its history and with a better future, to “create a river for all,” where industry and people can healthily coexist.

In these images taken over the last 10 years, photographer David Ryder shows the river’s multiplicity. Here is pollution and refuse: a tangle of tires like a nest of snakes rising from dark water. Here is the returning wildlife. Here are the people who gather on the river’s shores. Rasmussen says the Duwamish is probably the cleanest it’s been in a hundred years, but the work continues. “We can’t relax, we can’t stop,” he says. Like the river itself, “we have to keep moving.”

View from on high Kayakers paddle near Harbor Island, once the largest man-made island in the world.

Geese and seagulls rest on a beach. 

A mural stretches along a path outside of the Tukwila Community Center.

After a century of unchecked industrial waste, the river is polluted down to the sediment with PCBs, arsenic, dioxin, mercury. Spills used to be weekly and intentional, Rasmussen says. Now they’re down to two or three a year, each quickly contained.

Wildlife is returning to the Duwamish: It now has more biodiversity than anywhere else in Seattle. Here Caspian terns cover the shore near Kellogg Island.

Scenes from South Park’s Duwamish Waterway Park (clockwise from top left): Yoko Wakabayashi practices Jyorei, a Japanese healing process, at the river’s edge. Kids play in the sand. A group practices reiki, an energy healing practice, during a water blessing ceremony. A woman bows in a reiki ceremony.

Knowing they needed an industrial area to grow, Rasmussen says, early city planners “looked at this valley, and to them it was worthless because you couldn’t build anything on it… They started filling it with anything they could find, even rubble from the San Francisco earthquake.” 

Refuse in the river: Old fencing and tires in the river near West Seattle. 

Workers remove a crashed car from the river in Tukwila. 

Tires embedded in the bank of the river.

Recreation on the river: An educational cruise with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and National Wildlife Federation, catching salmon (reasonably safe to eat) and crab (not safe to eat), and canoeing.

A volunteer works along the banks of the Duwamish during a restoration event near the BECU headquarters in Tukwila.

Filed under
Show Comments

Related Content