Does It Take a Rain Surgeon to Maximize Stormwater?
It’s easy to agree that protecting our region’s water supply is a worthy goal. But, with water management agencies paid to do just that, it can be equally easy to assume there’s no role for individual action.
So let’s start with a little flashback…You’re in grade school, looking around your classroom (nice haircut, by the way), and your eyes settle on a poster on the wall. Puffy rain clouds, a cheerful sun, and a few big words like “transpiration” indicate that this is the Water Cycle poster, an iconic diagram that most of us saw at least once in grade school. (Here’s a classic one to jog your memory.) Bright arrows show water falling as rain, nourishing plants and filling in rivers, lakes, and oceans, then heading back into the sky to start the whole shebang over again.
Now look for the bit where the rainwater runs off our many impermeable surfaces (think concrete and building roofs), floods sewers, then causes crap (literally) to enter and pollute our waterways. Don’t see that in the cartoon diagram? Overflowing sewers may not have featured prominently in the lesson plan in those days, but today, there’s no ignoring them.
Thankfully, there are urban engineers, civic officials, and government agencies who have made it their mission to address those stormwater challenges. But with century-old sewer systems still in use across the country, there’s just not enough money to pay for complete system overhauls. And that’s where we, the nature-loving kids-at-heart, come in.
Our collective efforts to slow and/or collect rainwater where it falls (using tools like rain barrels and rain gardens) can make an important difference in protecting our region’s water supply. We chatted with Debra Shore, commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, and landscape design experts Cliff Miller and Julie Siegel to find out how we can all contribute to the effort.
This crash course in managing rainwater will have you ready to make a difference in no time.
Flood Management 101
First, a little primer on the flooding situation. And yes, we know what you’re thinking: Why are we talking about flooding during the worst drought in half a century?
The current drought helps remind us how important it is to keep the rain that we do get from running off, wasted, into the sewers—and instead to make the most of it by actually using it where it falls. Rain barrels and rain gardens are each great ways to achieve that goal. A full rain barrel can provide a water source during dryer times. And rain garden plants tend to be drought-friendly, so while they love moisture, they don’t need as constant a supply of water as other plants do.
And while this summer we’ve got historic levels of drought in the region, last year went down as the rainiest on record in Chicago, points out Commissioner Shore. Both cases of extreme weather play a part in a conversation about better managing our rainwater.
So back to flooding. Almost 800 communities across the country still operate on combined sewer systems, which commingle stormwater with sewage. When heavy rains occur, they overwhelm the capacity of these pipes, frequently causing sewage mixed with stormwater to overflow into the waterways. As the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes explains in a recent report, these Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) result in the dumping of tens of billions of gallons of stormwater mixed with raw sewage, toxic industrial waste, household chemicals, pesticides, and personal hygiene products into the Great Lakes.
Municipal agencies across the region are working to reduce those occurrences, and several, like the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, have made big strides with programs like Greenseams, which protects undeveloped lands that contain water-absorbing soils.
Still, while they’re making progress, municipal management agencies don’t have the budgetary means to save the day all by themselves. As the EPA explains it, “At a time when so much of our infrastructure is in need of replacement or repair and so few communities can foot the bill, we need resilient and affordable solutions that meet many objectives at once. Green infrastructure is one solution.”
As you might guess, that’s where we all come in.
Joining together to make green infrastructure more widespread in our communities is part of the solution, agree Shore, Miller, and Siegel.
No Advanced Degree Required to Slow the Flow
Green infrastructure includes several ways to manage rainwater where it falls, but we’ll focus on two of the most accessible: rain barrels and rain gardens. As Shore says, both will “slow the flow of any stormwater, which is important because rain barrels and rain gardens help to keep excess of water out of our sewers.” And both are fairly straightforward—you don’t need to learn how to engineer a bioswale or how to install permeable pavement to use them. (But extra credit for those who do!)
Easy A: Rain Gardens
Rain gardens are areas planted with moisture-loving flowers (think irises and asters) and deep-rooted native vegetation, which help the ground soak up water, allowing it to gradually percolate into the soil. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, rain gardens can absorb 30 percent more water than a conventional lawn.
Worry that a rain garden won’t look pretty? Miller believes that in itself is a great EcoMyth: “A lot of people think it’s going to be a wild and wooly area…like the unkempt, dark hole of your property…but it can be done in such ways that it fits with both modern gardens and highly manicured gardens, depending on how you deal with it.”
Miller and Siegel explain that certain types of soil are necessary for a rain garden’s success, but there are plenty of pros who can help you with it if you’ve got the space. And it doesn’t have to be a whole garden either. Starting with a patch of deep-rooted plants will help slow the flow of rainwater going into the system. In fact, replacing a nonpermeable surface like concrete with any kind of planting will make a difference, points out Miller.
Easier A: Rain Barrels
Basically just a giant 40- to 80-gallon barrel with a spigot, a rain barrel is one of the simplest ways to reduce water flow into sewers—and to make the most of rain where it falls. It works simply by collecting rainwater from a downspout, which you can then use to water your plants.
According to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, the rule of thumb is that a 1,000-square-foot roof can provide about 600 gallons of water during a one-inch rainfall, 300 gallons in a half-inch rainfall, or 150 gallons in a quarter-inch rainfall. It’s common for about an eighth of an inch of rain to fall each hour during a moderate rainstorm, which means that a 1,000-square foot roof can fill a properly installed 50-gallon rain barrel in about an hour, with about 25 gallons left over.
Miller, who started using rain barrels 30 years ago in Lake Forest, Illinois, says they’re easy to use no matter how much water you need or where you live. For example, people with big gardens may go through a 50-gallon size barrel quickly, so having two or three of them set up will help keep water on hand during dry times too.
For those of us with very little or no outdoor space, he suggests adapting the rain barrel concept for size.
Apartment dwellers with a few indoor plants may find they get enough water by placing a five-gallon pail on the porch beneath a downspout, off a balcony, or below a low point on the roof—wherever water collects more quickly. As he says, “If you’ve got a few orchids, you don’t need a barrel, you just need a bucket.”
Board Review: Can We Really Make a Difference?
Solving stormwater management issues can seem overwhelming to even the brain surgeons among us. But all the experts we spoke with say that a combination of green efforts will add up to real change, which means everyone has a part to play.
“Whole neighborhoods working together with a targeted approach may have some efficacy,” says Commissioner Shore, “both in reducing the amount going in to sewers during a rain event, and in giving more capacity to handle what’s happening.”
Or as Siegel puts it, “I’m old enough to believe if I’m not part of the solution, then I’m part of problem…If we can get as many people as possible practicing a number of these components then we can have an impact as a community.”
Barrel, bucket, garden, what have you—every raindrop counts. So let’s make ’em count in the best way possible.
EcoMyth Outcome: Myth Partially Busted
While it’s true that a comprehensive solution to stormwater management does depend on governing agencies, the community can contribute to green infrastructure by taking such accessible measures as installing rain barrels and creating rain gardens.
One Green Thing You Can Do
Want a faster fix? Miller says the easiest trick to slowing the flow is to disconnect your downspouts and sump pumps before storms, and let them run across the garden or yard instead.