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Watershed Planning

Watershed PhotoTacoma’s Watersheds

A watershed is an area of land that drains all streams, rainfall, and snowmelt to a common outlet such as a larger river, mouth of a bay, or any point along a stream channel. All surface water in our area drains from two regional watersheds: the Puyallup-White River Watershed and the Chambers-Clover Creek Watershed. These two watersheds are shaped and influenced by the natural landscape (like steep slopes, gulches, streams, wetlands, and shorelines), the built environment (like streets, sidewalks, parking lots, and other development), and the City’s Stormwater Collection System.

When pollutants enter our watershed through stormwater runoff contaminated with trash, yard chemicals, oil, soaps, pet waste, toxins, or other harmful sources, the negative effects can be measured and felt in every part of our environment.

The portions of our two regional watersheds located inside Tacoma city limits are also divided into nine sub-watersheds draining to local receiving waters, each with unique history, challenges, and opportunities for improvement:


North Tacoma

Drainage Area: 5,001 acres
Significant Waterbodies: Commencement Bay,  Puget Creek, Mason Creek,  Buckley Creek

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Photo: Mason Creek

Mason Creek North TacomaDescription: This watershed is mostly residential, but also covers 6th Avenue, Proctor Business District, and Ruston Way commercial areas, as well as part of the Westgate Shopping Center. It also includes the North End Treatment Plant and former ASARCO Smelter site. Historically, the area along the waterfront was inhabited by The Puyallup Tribe of Indians, used for hunting and fishing grounds, and travelled by many other tribes.  Once non-natives arrived, they began establishing industrial businesses and trade along the waterfront including sawmills, grain terminals, loading docks and other water-related activities. Geologically, this area contains sandy soils on top of clay layers with steep slopes located along the northern edge of the watershed.


Critical issues in the North Tacoma watershed include impaired nearshore habitats along the shoreline of Commencement Bay, erosion of steep slopes, and historic soil contamination with lead and arsenic within the Smelter Plume area. There are numerous fish passage barriers to creeks due to Ruston Way, the railroad, and shoreline development. Puget Creek has been a focus for habitat improvements, and a fish ladder was built in 1997 to give fish better access to the creek.


Foss Waterway

Drainage Area: 5,868 acres
Significant Waterbodies: Thea Foss Waterway, Wheeler-Osgood Waterway, Commencement Bay

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Photo: Thea Foss Waterway 

Thea Foss WaterwayDescription: Located in south-central Tacoma, the Foss Waterway watershed is mostly residential but also contains Tacoma’s industrial businesses located in the Tideflats and along South Tacoma Way. In addition to the I-5, Hwy 16, Hwy 7 and Hwy 705 corridors crossing this watershed, a significant portion of the industrial businesses in Tacoma are located here, as well as the Downtown Regional Growth Center, Pacific Avenue business center and Lincoln District business center. 

In the 1960's, natural drainages including creeks and groundwater, were directed into pipe systems and continue to exist as baseflow in those stormwater pipes. This baseflow discharges into the Thea Foss Waterway on a year-round basis. There are no streams or creeks remaining in the watershed.

The two major receiving waterbodies, Thea Foss and Wheeler-Osgood Waterways, were transformed from the original Puyallup River Delta into waterways with a variety of marine industrial uses in the late 1800s. The waterways became designated Superfund cleanup sites in 1983 as part of the Commencement Bay Nearshore/Tideflats Site. The City of Tacoma took the lead in remediating sediments in a large portion of the Thea Foss and Wheeler-Osgood Waterways under the oversight of EPA with work completed in 2006. Sediments were actively remediated with a combination of dredging and capping at various locations within the waterways, and are monitored routinely. Learn more about the Thea Foss Waterway Cleanup. The Thea Foss waterfront was subsequently redeveloped and now includes residential mixed use, museums, marinas and a waterfront esplanade.


Lower Puyallup

Drainage Area: 2,979 acres
Significant Waterbodies: Puyallup River, Swan Creek, First Creek

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Photo: First Creek

Lower Puyallup WatershedDescription: This watershed is located in southeastern Tacoma and is mostly residential with some undeveloped open space and a few small commercial areas. The northern part of the watershed contains some industrial and commercial areas near the Port of Tacoma. Included in this watershed are Interstate 5, Hwy 509, the Salishan Neighborhood, McKinley Neighborhood, Lower and Upper Portland Avenue Business Districts, and the Dome District.

The Puyallup Tribe of Indians were the original inhabitants of this region, and the mouth of the Puyallup River was the main village site of the Puyallup Tribe and an intersectional area for many other tribes.  The Puyallup Tribe also inhabited village sites along upland rivers and creeks in Tacoma and along the shores of the Salish Sea.  Following the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 and subsequent negotiations, the modern reservation land boundaries were established along with the right of taking fish “at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”  The rights of hunting and gathering on their ancestral lands were defended by the Tribe through the Fishing Wars of 1960’s and 1970’s and finally protected by the Boldt Decision of 1974 that specified the Tribe’s fishing right to harvest 50% of each salmon run both on and off assigned reservation lands and the right to co-manage the fisheries resources along with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.


The Puyallup River with its tributaries serves as a major migration route for a variety of salmon species. Four fish hatcheries are located in this system upstream from Tacoma. The lower Puyallup, where it meets Commencement Bay, is a salt-wedge estuary, with deeper marine water covered by a layer of fresh water. 

Located near the lower end of Swan Creek is a 12-acre restoration project that was completed by the City of Tacoma in 2001. Learn more about the Swan Creek restoration project. Nearby Swan Creek Park has been the location of annual Salmon Homecoming celebrations and recent community-led clean-up efforts.


First Creek helps define the Lower Puyallup watershed, and has deep cultural and historic significance to the Puyallup Tribe and others. The Creek is part of a drainage basin of approximately 2,500 acres. It is characterized by an abundance of wildlife and vegetation and also serves an important stormwater management function. Over the years, First Creek suffered impacts from both development and pollution. In 2013, the First Creek Action Plan was developed through a partnership between the community and public agencies as a consensus vision and framework for action to improve the First Creek corridor. 



Drainage Area: 2,615 acres
Significant Waterbodies: Middle Waterway, Sitcum Waterway, Blair Waterway, Wapato Creek, Puyallup River, Commencement Bay

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Photo: Port of Tacoma

TideflatsDescription: This watershed covers the most highly industrial and commercial areas of Tacoma. The majority of Tacoma’s heavy industrial facilities are located here. The Tideflats is zoned for Port Maritime and Industrial uses which are principally dominated by Port of Tacoma operations, but also include other businesses. This watershed includes the Middle Waterway, Sitcum Waterway, and Blair Waterways, and the Puyallup River. Wapato Creek discharges into the head of the Blair Waterway. The Middle and Sitcum Waterways were identified as cleanup sites under the Commencement Bay Nearshore/Tideflats Superfund site.  Sediments in these waterways have undergone remediation under the oversight of EPA with work completed in the Middle Waterway in 2004 and in the Sitcum Waterway in 1994. 

Historically, the Puyallup River's mouth at Commencement Bay consisted of an extensive tidal flat and wetland estuary delta and served as a primary camp site of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.  The Puyallup River continues to be a significant fishing ground for the Tribe today. Urbanization and an extensive system of flood control structures such as dams, levees, and culverts, have radically altered much of the Puyallup River and its tributaries. The estuary delta at the mouth of the Puyallup River has been almost completely replaced with the facilities of the Port of Tacoma, with less than 5% of the original estuarine habitat remaining. 


Tacoma is currently working on a Tideflats Subarea Plan as a component of the One Tacoma Comprehensive Plan. The three funding partners, the Port of Tacoma, Puyallup Tribe of Indians and City of Tacoma, are hiring a consultant to facilitate the development of the plan and community engagement.

Northeast Tacoma

Drainage Area: 3,385 acres
Significant Waterbodies: Hylebos Creek, Hylebos Waterway, Commencement Bay

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Photo: Hylebos Creek

NE Tacoma WatershedDescription: Much of the watershed contains steep slopes and bluffs with several intermittent streams that flow into Commencement Bay. Marine View Drive (Highway 509) separates the steep sloped areas of the Northeast Tacoma Watershed from the Hylebos Waterway. The gulches and wetlands in this area generally have intermittent water flow due to seasonally fluctuating groundwater. Groundwater seeps combined with sandy soils and steep slopes creates a large potential for erosion, and frequent landslides occur during winter months along Marine View Drive. 


While the upland area on top of the bluff is primarily residential development, the properties bordering the Hylebos Waterway and Marine View Drive are primarily industrial businesses.


Hylebos Creek is the only fish-bearing stream in the Northeast Tacoma Watershed.  Only a small portion of the creek lies within City of Tacoma limits.  Upstream, the Hylebos Creek system consists of approximately 350 miles of streams and 250 acres of wetlands and was one of the most productive small stream systems for salmonids in southern Puget Sound. Over time, the creek habitat quality has been severely impacted by development and urbanization. Although not a regional priority for salmon recovery, there is large community support to continue restoration and protection of the Hylebos Creek system. 


The Hylebos Waterway is listed as a Superfund site as part of the Commencement Bay Nearshore Tideflats Superfund Site. The clean-up consisted of dredging of contaminated sediments, capping several intertidal shoreline properties and monitoring the natural recovery of up to 20 acres. Due to partial recontamination of the Hylebos Waterway, EPA is currently considering next steps for this site.


There are several habitat mitigation sites in this watershed including the City of Tacoma Lower Hylebos Creek Mitigation Site, Hylebos Creek Estuarine Marsh Restoration Site, and Port of Tacoma Place of Circling Waters mitigation site at the head of the Hylebos Waterway.


Western Slopes

Drainage Area: 2,200 acres
Significant Waterbodies: Gold Creek, Narrows Creek, Crystal Creek, Crystal Springs Creek, Marinera Creek, Titlow Park Creek, Titlow Lagoon, Narrows Passage in Puget Sound

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Photo: The Narrows Passage

NArrows BridgeDescription: Located in northwest Tacoma, Western Slopes is mostly comprised of residential neighborhoods on steep slopes, with underground springs, shallow groundwater, and soil conditions that can cause slope instability.  This area alsoincludes Point Defiance Park, Titlow Beach, and part of the 6th Avenue commercial area. The Western Slopes forms a green belt between Point Defiance Park and Titlow Beach. This wildlife migration corridor is of great importance in Tacoma. Evidence of a large deer population as well as raccoons, river otter and other small animals are present along this corridor.

Critical habitat issues in this watershed include development near steep slopes and the removal or topping of trees to enhance views to the Puget Sound.  The Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) railway system runs along the entire length of the waterfront along the base of the steep slope areas. Many culverts have been places under the tracks to collect and convey the stormwater runoff and creek flows under the tracks to the Puget Sound. 

The community of Salmon Beach is located in this watershed and is only accessible by water or by a steep system of stairways and trails. While there is no creek located in this housing development, there are groundwater springs that discharge out of the hillside. There have been both surficial and deep-seated slides in this area associated with seismic activity. 

Leach Creek

Drainage Area: 1,867 acres

Significant Waterbodies: China Lake, TCC campus wetlands, Leach Creek, Chambers Creek 

View Map 


Photo: Confluence of Leach Creek

and Chambers Creek

Leach Creek WatershedDescription: Located in west-central Tacoma, this area covers both residential and commercial land. Included in this watershed is a portion of Hwy 16, Hwy 163 (Pearl Street), Westgate Shopping Center, James Center, Highland Hills Shopping Center, and Tacoma Community College (TCC). A portion of the Tacoma Landfill Superfund site is also included in this watershed.


Water from the Leach Creek watershed and some areas of Fircrest drains to the Leach Creek holding basin. The holding basin was built in 1961, with a 1,100-foot earthen dam constructed across a naturally depressed swampy area below Fircrest at the headwaters of Leach Creek.  In 1991, a pump station was added to the holding basin to pump high flows to the Thea Foss waterway.  The Leach Creek holding basin drains into Leach Creek, a highly urbanized stream. Leach Creek flows into Chambers Creek.  Salmonid spawning habitat is present in the lower portion of the creek from Bridgeport Way to Chambers Creek. The upper portions of the creek contain pockets of spawning grounds, but the elimination of vegetation by homeowners, the channeling of water and storm-related erosion have had a negative impact on the spawning area.


Flett Creek

Drainage Area: 7,130 acres
Significant Waterbodies: Snake Lake, Wapato Lake, Ward’s Lake, Flett Wetlands, Flett Creek, Chambers Creek

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Photo: Wapato Lake

Wapato LakeDescription: The Flett Creek sub-watershed is mostly residential with light commercial and industrial areas located in South Tacoma and also collects surface water from some adjacent areas of Pierce County.


Stormwater runoff from the Flett Creek surface water drains through a series of regional stormwater holding basins and naturally occurring lakes and wetlands. At the last Flett Creek holding basin a pump station sends the water to the Flett Wetlands where it flows into Flett Creek. Downstream, Flett Creek flows into Chambers Creek, a salmonid-bearing stream which discharges into Chambers Bay then to the Narrows.  Because of the large amount of pavement, roofs and other hard surfaces covering the watershed, Flett Creek experiences extreme high ‘flashy’ flows when it rains during the winter wet season and extreme low flows during the summer dry season.
Clover Park Technical College set aside a large amount of the historic Flett Dairy (site of the Flett Wetlands) to be preserved as open space and to provide for student training in water quality and environmental investigations and sampling.  Soils in much of this watershed are some of the most highly permeable soils in the City. This watershed contains the South Tacoma Groundwater Protection District and several drinking water wellhead protection areas as well as the South Tacoma Channel Superfund Site (formerly known as the South Tacoma Swamp.)


Joe's Creek

Drainage Area: 434 acres
Significant Waterbodies: Dumas Bay, Joe’s Creek

View Map 


Photo: Joe's Creek

Joe's CreekDescription: This is the smallest watershed in Tacoma and borders unincorporated Pierce County and the City of Federal Way to the north. While named the Joe’s Creek Watershed, only the eastern portion of the watershed drains to Joe’s Creek while the western portion drains just south of Dumas Bay from Dash Point State Park. Most of the area is single and multi-family homes, with some open space and undeveloped land. 


Joe’s Creek is the main freshwater creek in this area. Joe’s Creek itself is located in Federal Way, though it receives stormwater discharges from the City of Tacoma. The lower portion of the creek is used by salmonid species. While this use is moderate, the lowermost portion of the creek provides one of the best quality reaches of salmonid spawning and rearing habitat in the southwest portion of King County. 



Tacoma’s Healthy Neighborhoods Watershed Management Plan

For decades, Tacoma’s Environmental Services Department has been a regional leader in developing stormwater management programs including pollution source control inspections, green stormwater infrastructure projects, and stormwater quality testing. However, we recognize the need to partner with community members to develop a watershed-based approach to meet the diverse needs of Tacoma’s neighborhoods. The Watershed Management Plan will help us prioritize the most effective stormwater actions and projects, at the most important locations, to build a more healthy and resilient Tacoma and a thriving Puget Sound. The Plan provides a flexible framework that can be updated over time to reflect new pollution hotspots, community priorities, future development and housing needs, and anticipated climate change impacts. The Plan also sets standards for tracking and reporting progress toward our goals.


Coming in September-Watershed Community Survey and Workshops

We want to hear your priorities and concerns when it comes to stormwater issues in Tacoma. Your input will help protect clean water and increase healthy green spaces where they are needed most in Tacoma.


Complete the online community survey at anytime between now and October 15, or participate in a virtual community workshop on Saturday, Sept 25 1:00-2:30 p.m., or Tuesday Sept. 28 5:00-6:30 p.m.


Watershed Community Survey





Visit www.Tacomaurbanwatersheds.com to learn more, complete the survey and register for the workshops.


And please tell your neighbors!


Read more about the Healthy Neighborhoods Watershed Management Plan

revised planning timeline









Contact Information

For additional information about the Watershed Management Plan, contact:


Laura Nokes, Watershed Planning Project Manager - (253) 502-2274, lnokes@cityoftacoma.org

Shauna Hansen, Stormwater Engineer - (253) 502-2284, shansen2@cityoftacoma.org