Pioneers Retire

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Two modern-day pioneers – Al Dietemann, the man they call the “Great Guru of water conservation,” and Carl Woestwin, “the father of Seattle’s organics” – stopped by my office recently to bid goodbye.

The pair are retiring from Seattle Public Utilities.  And they’ll most assuredly be missed, for they’ve both led campaigns so amazing and so innovative that the rest of the nation is breathless trying to catch up.

First let’s look at Al Dietemann, the “great guru” of water conservation. What he accomplished since joining SPU in 1987, is miraculous. Just think: In that year, one the city’s worst droughts, there were fewer people using Seattle water, but water consumption overall was 41 percent higher than it is today.

As he retires, Dietemann is leaving Seattle Public Utilities with 233,000 more water customers all using 29 percent less water than when he started.  By 2030, his efforts will have saved 720 billion gallons of water, enough to fill Lake Washington.

And, while he focused on Seattle’s conservation efforts, Dietemann’s work reached way beyond the city and the region. He materially changed the nation’s way of using water, championing efficient appliances, creating the “WaterSense Label” and setting a conservation ethic that is spreading nationwide.

When I met with Dietemann, he told me the story of how he did the research for a shower head that saves water, yet still delivers a fully satisfactory experience.  Manufacturers went along with the reformed product, with a single vocal hold out. It took a battle, but, after thorough testing, the shower head was eventually accepted as the standard.

While Dietemann was having a lasting influence on the way we use water, Carl Woestwin, was having an equally important impact on Seattle’s organic recycling movement.  Look at his record: In the past 10 years, Seattle residents have diverted enough wholesome food — 23,000 tons — to supply over 3 million meals to Seattle food banks and feeding programs.

And, since 1988, Seattle residents have diverted 275,000 tons of grass and yard compost from the land fill. If you’re having a hard time visualizing that much tonnage, think of 30 Space Needles, 40,000 elephants or 750 Boeing 747 planes.

In the past 25 years, more than 95,500 compost bins and 25,000 electric mulch mowers have been sold or distributed. Meanwhile, seven hundred master composter volunteers have donated more than 25,000 hours to provide free yard care services across Seattle.

When he arrived on the Seattle scene with a Horticulture degree from WSU, Woestwin first went to work as a groundskeeper at the Good Shepherd Center, where he later would help form Seattle Tilth.

In 1989 he was hired at Seattle Public Utilities and launched Seattle’s backyard composting program, to which he later added food waste composting. In partnership with Seattle Tilth, he launched the Master Composter Volunteer Program. Master Composting has been expanded to include Natural Yard Care, a program so successful that the Environmental Protection Agency currently promotes it on the EPA’s website.

With his colleague and project partner, David McDonald, Woestwin has developed a set of simple steps to care for yard and gardens sustainably, using little or no pesticides and herbicides and conserving water. Together McDonald and Woestwin pioneered mulch mowing of lawns to feed lawns and reduce grass clipping waste.

Woestwin’s lately has devoted his attention to food waste, particularly the needless disposal of wholesome food that can provide nourishment. He cites a grim statistic: 40 percent of U. S. food is thrown away.  He says he remembers that, in the late 70s, Wallingford activist Victor Lygdman invited notables to a “garbage lunch.” Says Woestwin,  “He served soup and salad from food that would have been thrown away.”  It was a lesson for many who attended.

Woestwin may be retiring, but he plans to keep on working on food programs. He has a P-Patch at the city’s first community garden on land donated by the Picardo family and thus dubbed “P- Patch.” In retirement, Woestwin will volunteer on a food waste committee and adopt a dog, something he felt he couldn’t do during his more active working  years.

Al Dietemann has plans too though they’re a little closer to home. He and his wife will devote time caring for an elderly parent. And in both cases, these genuine pioneers will still be doing what they always have: Thinking globally and acting locally.