Much Has Improved: Sewer Systems Changed Due to Quake

The grand opening of the new King County Wastewater Treatment Plant (KCWTP) took place on July 25. The plant currently serves as a part of a regional system that treats wastewater for about 1.6 million people and covers 430 square miles in the Puget Sound region. The integration of the treatment plant into King County’s intricate sewage network was a long-awaited achievement for King County following the magnitude 7.2 Earthquake which struck the Seattle Fault.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

The treatment plant was conceived to meet the overwhelming public demand for infrastructural improvements to the wastewater systems damaged after the quake which rocked the city in mid-February ten years ago. The violent lateral shaking was greater than the previous wastewater systems capacity was designed to withstand. As a result, the system failed catastrophically in some areas. The vulnerability of the county’s infrastructure that was exposed by the earthquake lead to a public call-to-action and awareness of the issues surrounding degraded or antiquated sewer systems. Attention to the re-envisionment of wastewater infrastructure led to the realization that growing service demands across King County over the next several decades would soon require immediate construction of another wastewater facility.  The earthquake exposed and shed light on many of the county’s infrastructural vulnerabilities and shortcomings.

Though the earthquake produced extensive damage, the destruction served as a catalyst for change. In response, citizens of King County, stakeholders, nonprofits, and local and federal government agencies worked together to formulate proactive actions to dramatically revamp and improve wastewater infrastructure within the County.intergrated-science-building-2

Weeks after the earthquake, a city hall meeting was held to discuss the state of Seattle’s infrastructure. A Seattle native by the name of Fernando D’Amore took to the podium. He stated, “What if we could design a wastewater facility founded upon the principles of sustainable development, efficiency, and social equity? What if we could combine these elements to create a space conducive to the environment and conducive to the people? We could seize this opportunity to strengthen the community in the face of natural hazards.” These words resonated with members of the community and propagated wide-spread support.

The earthquake left many parts of the city in shambles as lifeline infrastructures were destroyed. Failures were characterized by floating, burst, and collapsed sewers and pipes. Untreated sewage seeped out onto city streets and water bodies, and remained there untreated for weeks. This lack of access in an emergency scenario led to county-wide discussions aimed at protecting lifeline systems and mitigation in the event of the next extreme event. 

The product of this resiliency dialogue between the public and private sector resulted in the Wastewater Infrastructure Revitalization Act. This act allocated funds and personnel to the assessment and re-structuring of wastewater systems throughout King County. This act also created a task-force whose purpose it was to assess King County’s existing wastewater treatment facilities, and their level of vulnerabilities to earthquakes.

This initiative resulted in the $2 billion dollar King County Wastewater Treatment Plant located along the outskirts of Seattle.  The KCWTP is one of the largest capital projects in over fifty years. The KCWTP treats on average about 90 million gallons of wastewater per day, using state-of-the-art environmentally friendly membrane bioreactor technology. Fifteen miles of pipes and pumps stretch underground, taking wastewater to and from the plant.

The facility was designed to withstand a magnitude 8.8 earthquake centered anywhere within the region – including on the site itself. Additional reinforcements were included in the design to ensure functionality in the face of a hazard. This includes but not limited to additional steel reinforcement strengthening containers holding liquids, flexible piping systems which move during lateral movement, additional bracing of piping equipment, reinforced chemical containment facilities, and emergency generators. These additional reinforcements were implemented to ensure functionality in the face of the next natural hazard.

It incorporated sustainable design and building practices in all facets of its construction and operations.  From its conception, the KCWTP contractors, architects, and engineers made a commitment to sustainability. They dedicated their efforts to protecting natural resources, limiting the impacts of construction, and leading the way in development of sustainable practices.

The wastewater treatment facility has been praised for its sleek design that encompasses elements of environmental planning, sustainable development, and community integration and education. The area constructed upon was once home to a mismanaged garbage dump- but has been transformed into an environmentally viable alternative to the latter. With its eighty acres of restored public open space, forty acres of restored natural habitat, and fifteen miles of public trails.

The facility not only functions as a wastewater treatment center, but a community and ecological focal-point. The restored habitat includes forests, wetlands, and a salmon-bearing creek, which naturally filters rainwater runoff. The plant site includes a LEED Platinum community and environmental education center that invites citizens on free tours, and offers wastewater science lessons in the Environmental Learning Lab.

Antonio Berducci, a second grader on a school field trip, attended a lesson offered by the KCWTP. He recounts his experience after class is over. “I really liked learning about where our water goes, and how it is used. I never used to think about where the water went; I just saw that it went down the drain and that’s it. Now I see that it all goes somewhere, and that it’s important that we know about it. If we know about it, we can help protect it. I think all students should have to come here to learn about our water.”

A King County elected official was the leading advocate for the implementation of the Wastewater Infrastructure Revitalization Initiative. At the grand opening of the Puget Sound Wastewater Treatment Plant, she cut the red ribbon encasing the facility. She said to the crowd gathered before the building, “No area is free from the risk of natural hazards. Here, we must accept that earthquakes will inevitably occur sometime in the future. While we cannot predict when these earthquakes will happen, we can prepare for them by taking measures to protect people (Understanding Royal Treatment at Brightwater, 2006). The aftermath of the 2015 earthquake indicated that King County needed to take further action to strengthen the resiliency of the city. The King County Wastewater Treatment Center is the product of the community acting together to cultivate resilience in the face of natural hazards.”

Though the Wastewater Infrastructure Revitalization Act was hugely successful, it was met with opposition along the way. Taxpayers and governmental agencies were hesitant when presented with the cost of the project. Funds were generated partially by the federal government, King County, and taxpayer dollars. Unsurprisingly,costs rose.

Other difficulties presented themselves in the form of multiple lawsuits. Since its proposal, the KCWTP has been subject to multiple legal battles. On October of 2017, Snohomish County filed a lawsuit against King County over public safety and habitat protection and restoration, and was awarded $100 million. In January of 2018, a group of individuals whose properties abutted the facility filed lawsuit against King County over the potential impacts to air quality from the plant. The county countered these claims with advanced odor-control methods.

The creation of the KCWTP was ultimately a huge achievement for those residing within King County. In this case, a natural hazard provided an opportunity for King County to address infrastructural issues that may only have been assessed in the wake of such a disaster. It displayed that despite all of the obstacles and all of the complexities of politics, and economic interests, sustainable development is an effective resilience strategy.


King County will prepare Brightwater for an earthquake, and you can be prepared, too. (2006). Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

Dolan, M. (2012). Understanding the Royal Treatment at Brightwater. Seattle Magazine.

Bart, C. (2014). King County Regional Hazard Mitigation Plan Update. Bothell: Tetra Tech.

Stewart, M. (2005). Scenario for a Magnitude 7.6 Earthquake on the Seattle Fault. Oakland: Earthquake Engineering Research Institute.

USGS. (2009). Understanding Earthquake Hazards in Washington State. Seattle: Washington State Department of Natural Resources.