Rain drums bring visitors to Valley
A rhythmic thumping from the shores of Rattlesnake Lake carries through the clear, crisp air as water strikes the Rain Drums of the Cedar River Watershed Education Center. The soft trickle of the stream that runs through the courtyard mixes with plunking skin of the drums. This background music underscores the idyllic scene across the lake of the solitary peak of Rattlesnake Ledge.
The Center serves as the gateway to the Cedar River Watershed, roughly 143 square acres owned by the City of Seattle. It is the primary source of tap water for King County, providing over 100 million gallons per day and serving 1.4 million people.
The Cedar River Watershed Education Center tells the story of the area, the history, and the water. It opened in 2001. The center is filled with art and exhibits that explain the flow of drinking water that begins as snow and rain and ends at the faucet. The center also offers a diverse range of programs such as nature hikes and guided tours designed to help people appreciate and understand something so easily taken for granted.
“It’s a great place to learn about natural history and how we relate to water,” said Pierre LaBarge, a public education program specialist at the center for nearly 11 years. LaBarge said the center sees more than 6,000 elementary school children each year.
The center tells a story through its artistic design. Artifacts from native people adorn the walls and representation of local wildlife is everywhere. The light fixtures are made from antlers and the feathers of local birds are on display.
But the most famous feature of the center is just outside their front door. The Rain Drum Courtyard is a huge attraction. Artist Dan Corson created the 21 drums that represent different cultures. The series of outdoor drums reverberate as they are hit by computer-controlled spurts of water on dry days; when it rains, the drops provide the sound.
“We have had people from all over the world. When they come to visit Seattle, they get brought up here to see the rain drums,” said Chris Holland, the facility coordinator. “Unofficially, this has kind of been referred to as the best piece of Seattle public art.”
The Rain Drum Courtyard looks over the lake, with the lone peak of Rattlesnake Ledge across the water. The drums play automatically until dusk, provided it’s not too frosty outside. The rhythm of the water changes, so the drums softly change beats throughout the day. The water for the drums is drawn from the stream that flows through the courtyard and under the center itself.
“They’re famous,” LaBarge said. “People come from all around to hear the music of the Rain Drums.”
The location of the Center is part of what makes it special. It is the hub of several natural features of the area. The center’s programs use these features to tell the history of logging, Native Americans, and water.
The Center lies just to the northwest of Chester Morse Lake and Dam. The Cedar River flows from Chester Morse Lake and eventually ends in Lake Washington.
Rattlesnake Lake was actually created by the construction of the Chester Morse Dam in 1900. Seepage during the construction of the Dam pooled in the populated area where the lake now rests. The flooding was slow enough that the town was evacuated and buildings were moved. But during a dry summer, foundations of the old buildings can be seen under the water.
“This is a place of connections,” Holland said. “We’re on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, we’re on the Iron Horse trail, we’re here at Rattlesnake Ledge, but we’re also telling the stories and the history of this area.”
Holland wants visitors of the Center to come away with a better understanding of the water system they are a part of.
“That’s something people take for granted,” she said.
But she also knows that to draw people in, the Center has to use the natural wonder around the area to encourage the learning process.
“I think they walk out of here feeling the beauty of the space, and sort of the magic of the space,” she said.
She wants visitors to see “there’s a special place that is larger than themselves.”
According to LaBarge, this particular watershed is one of the highest quality in the nation. Due to regional conservation efforts, the area uses roughly the same amount of water as it did in the 1960s, but serves nearly twice the population.
“Seattle is seen as sort of the gold standard for water protection,” he said. “People are very thoughtful about their water use, so system-wide, they’re saving it.”
The Cedar River Watershed is unique in that it is the only such water purveyor in the country that is owned almost entirely by the municipal government. Similar water supplies have some kind of public, private partnership, or are owned by a different level of government. Seattle is the one city that has total autonomy over its water.
Even though it is located in the Snoqualmie Valley, the project is not the main source of drinking water for Snoqualmie or North Bend.
“For Seattle, having its own water is an important distinction because in the end, it’s the city’s control of its own land. And in 100 years, 200 years, it’s going to really matter,” LaBarge said.
According to the United Nations, more than 40 percent of people on Earth are affected by water scarcity. Thanks to King County’s prioritizing water protection, the Cedar River Watershed is estimated to be able to sustain the region through 2060, at which point population growth will necessitate the supply is augmented by another source.
LaBarge attributes the excellent state of the region’s water supply to the people.
“I think that’s a core value of those who live here in the Northwest, or in Seattle, is that they are connected,” he said. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the citizens.”
Water is such a vital component to life, but it is easily overlooked. The Center is a place where people can see how water affects their region, and the history of their own backyard.
“As humans, and all life, we need some basic things: food, water, shelter, community,” LaBarge said.
The Cedar River Watershed Education Center provides a little of all those things.
“We want people to stay connected to their water supplies.”