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Saving the Bay a Raindrop at a Time

A common question many people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have is, “What can I do personally to make a difference in restoring the Bay?”

One of the simplest, most practical answers is to attach a rain barrel to your home’s gutter downspout. The rain barrel captures the water running off your roof, conveniently storing it until you’re ready to use it to water your lawn or flowerbeds. That’s especially handy during dry times of year in the Bay region; plus, it saves money on your local water bill because you’re using less municipal water.

More importantly, however, the rain barrel keeps the rainwater from immediately running off your yard, down the driveway, and into the street, where it likely flows down a storm drain and into a nearby stream or creek. Even moderate rains can produce so much stormwater runoff that it scours the banks of streams, causing major erosion and flooding problems.

The runoff water also typically picks up and carries fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, oil, grease, road grit, litter, and other pollutants washing off the land. The pollutants cause big problems for plants and animals in your neighborhood stream; cumulatively, they are a major headache for rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

So for as little as $50-$70, anyone can buy and install a rain barrel and become part of the solution to DSC_0001cleaning up local streams and the Bay. That’s important to Margaret O’Bryan, a Henrico County, Va., resident who lives in a condo community near Upham Brook, an urban stream flowing through Henrico and the City of Richmond that eventually empties into the Chickahominy River, the James River, and the Chesapeake Bay. Because of runoff pollution, Upham Brook has made Virginia’s official “dirty waters list” of troubled streams.

O’Bryan was one of 28 local residents who attended a recent rain barrel workshop sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond. She came away with a rain barrel, instructions on how to connect it to her downspout, and a new awareness of the difference it can make for clean water.

“If more people used rain barrels, it can be a big part of the answer” to restoring the Bay, she said. “And it’s such a benign part of the solution. It’s just common sense.”

She had a different plan for her rain barrel, however. She’s installing it at her mountainous Highland County, Va., home to help reduce runoff and provide more water for her extensive flower beds there. She tends the beds specifically to attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. “I think they’re the most beautiful flower beds in Virginia,” she says. No doubt, and the rain barrel will help keep them that way.

Based on comments of (anonymous) evaluations after the recent workshop, other participants also came away with not only a rain barrel but a new awareness of watershed issues and a sense of empowerment in making a difference. Nearly all said they were interested in taking additional steps to reduce runoff from their homes and yards, including having a “riverwise audit” done of their yard and planting rain gardens.

The “riverwise audits,” another CBF project in the Upham Brook watershed, involve a trained Master Gardener coming by invitation to a resident’s home and assessing landscaping opportunities for reducing runoff. The audits take about an hour and typically produce recommendations for installing rain barrels, reducing lawn, addressing erosion, and planting rain gardens.

RaingardenRain gardens are beds of water-absorbing grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees strategically planted to catch runoff from gutters, patios, driveways, and sidewalks so rainwater sinks into the ground and nourishes plants rather than runs off to increase water pollution, erosion, and flooding.

When you think about it, it makes common sense, as O’Bryan noted. And if we all take just a few such simple steps, the difference we can make together in local stream health and Bay health can be enormous.

To learn more about rain barrels, click here. For more on rain gardens, click here. For additional CBF publications on reducing runoff and other pollution, click here.

Chuck Epes
Chesapeake Bay Foundation


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