Slowing the Flow: Fixing Flooding with Gardens and Wetlands

How Virginia is Stopping Polluted Runoff with the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund

Church rain garden completed
Grace Baptist Church after the rain garden project was complete. Photo by Fran Geissler.

The three houses probably should never have been built on the low swampy ground in the James Terrace neighborhood in Williamsburg. Every time heavy rain fell, water filled crawl spaces, and yards flooded. At one property, the house would nearly become an island after storms. The site was developed in the 1950s, and because of poor drainage, it wouldn't pass muster for a new home today.

Church rain garden before (Google street view)
Grace Baptist Church before the project began. Image courtesy of Google Street View.

Fortunately, with the help of a grant from the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund (SLAF), homeowners, a local church, and James City County were able to work together on a holistic solution. The system of rain gardens and wetlands put in place has not only reduced flooding, it's also stopped polluted runoff and beautified the neighborhood.

The first step began with Grace Baptist Church, which sits on high ground above the homes. Rain would wash off the church's roof and parking lot, sending runoff down the slope into the neighborhood. This created a "domino effect" of flooding, said James City County Stormwater Director Fran Geissler.

"We wanted to slow down all of that water and catch it before it runs down the hill," Geissler said.

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A series of cascading pools to reduce flooding and polluted runoff in the neighborhood. Photo by Stephen B. Geissler.

The solution was to build a large rain garden on the side of the church facing the James Terrace neighborhood. The garden grows in a dug-out depression, which holds water flowing off the church roof and lot. It's filled with native plants that soak up and filter this runoff.

In the past, rains would turn the area into a muddy quagmire where cars often got stuck. But since the garden was completed, the spot brightens up the roadside. "It has addressed drainage issues on one side of the church and also allows us to contribute to the community in a way we haven't before," said Pastor Stephen Wiley of Grace Baptist Church. "The garden beautifies one side of the church and also helps our neighbors. The more water we hold back, the less flooding they will have downstream."

The next step was to address the downhill properties that were experiencing flooding, where three homes were built on a former swamp. The solution was to build two series of cascading rocky pools surrounded by shrubs and grasses, basically reconstructing

Church rain garden planting 3
Planting the rain garden at Grace Baptist Church. Photo by Fran Geissler.

those wetlands. "Parts of the yards were turned back into their natural state," Geissler said. The county worked closely with homeowners to make sure they were pleased with the result.

The garden and wetlands were completed last summer, and since then the area has experienced heavy rains. But the project is working, and has reduced flooding substantially, Geissler said. The county is now completing the final phases, which involve upgrading drainage downstream of the neighborhood.

The pools and the garden also filter out pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus and remove bacteria, which would otherwise flow into the James River and, eventually, the Chesapeake Bay. These solutions are part of meeting Virginia's commitments to restore the Bay under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

State support from the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund was crucial to making it all a reality, according to Geissler. "I doubt this project would have been built without SLAF funding," she said. "SLAF funding provided an impetus to county decision-makers to provide additional funds to address stormwater issues in the neighborhood."

The Numbers  
Stormwater Local Assistance Fund Share $210,000
Construction Start October 2015
Project Completion  July 2016

 

Stay tuned for more stories of how innovative projects like these can help Virginia stop harmful polluted runoff from entering our rivers, streams, and Bay!  

—Kenny Fletcher, CBF's Virginia Communications Coordinator

Click here to read our full "Slowing the Flow" polluted runoff series.

 


Part Two: From Sandbags to Black-Eyed Susans at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church

This is the second part in a series about how a Bel Air community tackled the problem of polluted runoff together. Click here to read part one.

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Rain gardens, like the ones installed at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Harford County, Maryland, filter rainwater and prevent eroded sediment and nutrient runoff from entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

We applied for and received a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust to assist in the purchase of native vegetation, and Christ Our King's administration provided significant donations of time, money, and supplies. As rain gardens provide beautiful, effective ways to mitigate polluted stormwater, our team designed and installed two rain gardens that converted 1,200 square feet of turf grass to beds of sand/soil mixture growing 16 species of native shrubs and perennials.

Belair2
More than 60 volunteers, including Christ Our King members, a local Cub Scout pack, and interested citizens in the Harford County area came together to build rain gardens. And more than 400 native perennials and shrubs were planted to provide habitat for wildlife, filter excess nutrients and sediment, and prevent erosion on the property.

During a rain event, water temporarily collects on the garden surface, then soaks into the soil, removing pollutants and preventing erosion as it does. Native plants in the garden require little maintenance, provide habitat for local wildlife, and prevent toxins from reaching groundwater. Our rain gardens capture runoff from 4,000 square feet of roof and treat more than 2,300 gallons of polluted runoff during a one-inch rain event. That's more than eight tons of water! The water in the rain gardens infiltrates within 24 hours and alleviates flooding in the stormwater management pond

In addition, gutters around the parish house roof funnel collect 1,500 gallons of clean rainwater into a rain harvesting cistern for landscape maintenance. These cisterns help water nine vegetable garden beds that support families in the congregation. Catching rainwater this way protects the rain gardens during extreme storms.

Moreover, this water keeps the landscaping and gardens productive and reduces the Parish's need for municipal water. When a rains storm occurs, the first quarter of an inch of water collects the highest concentration of bacteria and debris from the roof. This "first flush" of polluted water enters the gutter system, where a diverter and filter system directs it to the rain gardens, helping to keep the cistern clean, and lessening maintenance demands.

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Community members installed a 1,500-gallon cistern that stores clean rainwater for the vegetable beds and flower gardens at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. Cisterns and rain barrels are an excellent alternative to municipal water for watering plants or even washing cars.

This coordinated series of best management practices has alleviated the flooding and erosion issues on the property associated with polluted stormwater runoff. Together, they provide a wildlife corridor for local pollinators like bees, butterflies, and birds. Hummingbirds have been visiting the gardens' bee balm and cardinal flower for nectar, and many bee species buzz around the black-eyed susans and mistflower for pollen. The Sunday school classes and the youth group created interpretive signage to educate visitors about how the rain gardens and cistern are helping to alleviate polluted runoff. The youngest volunteers even converted parts of scrap wooden pallets into garden markers.

And what happened to the sand bags? 

We used their contents to make up the soil mix for the rain gardens. Christ Our King Presbyterian may be only one church, but our project has greatly benefited our common property as well as Bynum and Winters Runs. We hope our experience will inspire and inform other churches to take on similar projects for the benefit of God's Creation.

—Julia Poust, Chesapeake Conservation Corps Volunteer


Part One: From Sandbags to Black-Eyed Susans at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church

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Polluted runoff from storms is a major source of water pollution in Harford County.

In all of Maryland's political fights over stormwater runoff pollution (remember the "rain tax"?), there was precious little conversation about the local benefits that county programs would bring. Nor did opponents ever admit that most of those programs included significant incentives for local people to join with their county governments to help solve issues like flooding. Here's the story of one of those local projects that benefited both a local waterway and its people.

Harford County, between Baltimore and the Susquehanna River, was one of the jurisdictions that objected to polluted runoff fees. Despite its long and proud history of agriculture, including preservation of close to 50,000 acres through state easements that protect that land from commercial and residential development, its relative proximity to Baltimore is driving up suburban population growth. The agricultural easements have actually concentrated most of the county's growth in the I-95 corridor and along Route 24, which crosses the interstate in the watersheds of Bynum Run and Winters Run to serve the county seat of Bel Air.

Both streams flow to the Bush River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay's upper Western Shore. The Bush offers habitat for waterfowl, blue crabs, yellow perch, white perch, rockfish, largemouth bass, and juvenile menhaden, but sediment runoff from developed land is rapidly filling its tidal wetlands and channels.

The Bynum Run watershed is now heavily urbanized, becoming one of the most densely populated areas in Harford County. In fact, 70 percent of the total area is covered by impervious surfaces such as paved roads, driveways, and parking lots. The Maryland Department of the Environment has listed Bynum Run as a biologically impaired waterway, damaged by channelization and smothered by sediment.

As a lifelong Harford County resident, I have witnessed stormwater flowing off our rooftops, over our lawns and pavement, down storm drains, and directly into our nearest waterway. When rain events occur, water polluted with sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus, flows so fast that it disturbs both the bottom and the banks of the streambed, further eroding those banks and destroying habitat for the vegetation, macroinvertebrates (insect larvae), and fish that are native to the stream ecosystem.

As this year's Chesapeake Conservation Corps volunteer for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, I decided to focus my capstone project on protecting local stream health and working in my community to promote stewardship of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  My first thought was to work with my church, Christ Our King Presbyterian Church—a medium-sized congregation, straddling both the Bynum Run and Winters Run watersheds. Throughout the 16 years of attending Sunday school, youth group, vacation bible school, and regular services at Christ Our King, I have experienced first-hand the detrimental effects stormwater has on its property.

When founded 50 years ago, Christ Our King included a single building with a small parking lot. Jump to 2015: The parish has grown to more than 500 members and gone through two building expansions, significantly increasing the cumulative area of its rooftops and parking lot. The rest of the property is turf grass, broken by one grove of trees. During this growth, channeling the roof gutters directly into a stormwater management pond was the common practice to handle surface runoff, but it only intensified the volume and velocity of runoff entering the pond.

But for the past few years, the pond has not been able to handle the volume of an average rain event, frequently flooding the lower level classrooms and activity hall, and a neighbor's property. Like preparing for a hurricane, our only defense has been lining walkways with sandbags to protect the building against the overflowing pond. To combat the stormwater issues, some fellow Christ Our King members and I set about planning and installing a series of best management practice techniques to protect our church and lessen the pollution load entering the Bynum Run watershed.

The church is Bay-Wise-certified through the University of Maryland Master Gardeners' Program. Our Care of Creation Committee focuses on environmental stewardship, enhancing sustainable landscape practices, and raising awareness in the community of how local actions affect the Chesapeake Bay and the wider world.

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CBF's Doug Myers discusses how to support a healthy Chesapeake Bay with residents of Harford County.

The Care of Creation Committee holds an annual Earth Day Celebration, which this year featured an open discussion about local stream health and overall issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay. Doug Myers, senior scientist in the CBF's Maryland Office, led the session. Twenty local community members attended, including representatives from Christ Our King, the Master Gardener Program, the Senior Science Society of Harford Community College, and CBF members.

Many of the congregation's members live in single-family detached houses in suburban communities that lie along tributaries leading to the Gunpowder, Bush, and Susquehanna Rivers. Volunteers understand that polluted runoff from impervious surfaces and agricultural practices are responsible for the existing pollution problem in local waterways. They also have remarked that there is not a lot of public knowledge on how well local governments and individual citizens are fulfilling their responsibility for protecting water quality in the area. My goal was to provide the community with the necessary tools and hands-on experience needed to create rain gardens and other Bay-friendly practices in their own neighborhoods.

—Julia Poust, Chesapeake Conservation Corps Volunteer

Click here to continue the story on how Julia was able to tackle polluted runoff at her Bel Air Church.


Saving the Bay, One Rain Garden at a Time

DSC_0006Photos by Chuck Epes/CBF Staff.

Rain gardens—plots of native plants planted beside hard-surface areas to catch and filter polluted runoff—are some of the best pollution-fighting tools in the clean water tool box. 

The water-absorbing soils in rain gardens allow runoff water to soak into the ground and be naturally filtered and cleansed of harmful pollutants washing off roads, parking lots, and lawns. And the native grasses, flowers, and shrubs in rain gardens use the runoff water to grow and flourish, providing food and homes for wildlife and beautifying the landscape.

More rain gardens mean cleaner water, cleaner streams, and a healthier Chesapeake Bay. Reducing runoff pollution is among the key goals of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, the state-federal plan to restore the Bay and its many rivers and streams.

That's why CBF's Virginia staff and volunteers began installing five rain gardens last week in residential yards in the Broad Rock community of Richmond, Va. The properties were selected after CBF met with more than 60 community residents to discuss ways they could reduce polluted runoff coming from their property. After installation of the rain gardens, the homeowners will qualify for a credit on their monthly Richmond stormwater fee.

The rain gardens are part of a larger CBF project engaging the Broad Rock community on ways residents can reduce runoff from their homes, places of worship, roads, and businesses. Funding for the project is provided by The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

Chuck Epes, CBF's Assistant Director of Media Relations

Learn more about the serious problems that come from polluted runoff.

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Baltimore's Butchers Hill Makes Strides in Reducing Polluted Runoff

The following first appeared in the Baltimore Guide.

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This curb bump-out, at North Collington Avenue and Baltimore Street, is in the early stages of construction. Photo by Erik Zygmont.

Could it be the greenery? On muggy summer days, the temperature's a little lower in Butchers Hill, and shade seems more readily available.

In recent days, the bucolic neighborhood has gained even more green assets. With a "Blue Alley" and a water-filtering curb bump-out complete, and more on the way, the neighborhood continues to move toward fulfilling a greening master plan released in 2008.

A "Blue Alley" is an alley that has been made pervious, in which some rainwater absorbs into the ground rather than joins the rush of runoff into the storm drain system and eventually into the bay.

Last year, Blue Water Baltimore, the organization behind the Blue Alleys, told the Guide that in an especially severe storm, an under-drain below the pervious surface would funnel excess stormwater into the regular drain system, but even in extreme situations, huge discharges into the Bay would be reduced.

Similarly to Blue Alleys, curb bump-outs catch and absorb rainwater rather than allowing it to flow into the city's already-overwhelmed drain system. Curb bump-outs are essentially planting beds that take up space on the side of the roadways in the same manner as parked cars.

The two new curb bump-outs in Butchers Hill–at the intersections of Chester Street and Fairmount Aveunue as well as North Collington Avenue and Baltimore Street do not result in any loss of parking, however, because they are placed at corner dead spaces, where parking was prohibited anyway so as not to impede visibility.

"I'm happy that they are nearing completion," said Sandra Sales, a Butchers Hill resident who has been liaisoning with Blue Water Baltimore for the Blue Alleys and curb bump-outs project.

"I look forward to the plantings and seeing how they really improve runoff into the harbor."

In addition to not impacting parking, the curb bump-outs feature pedestrian pass-throughs to allow pedestrians to cross the street.

"It's a new animal and it'll be interesting to see how that works," said Sales.

In a previous interview with the Guide, Blue Water Baltimore said that the bulk of the funding for the project was a $600,000 grant from the National Wildlife Foundation with $300,000 in matching funds from the Baltimore City Department of Public Works and the Baltimore City Department of transportation.

The overall project also includes two Blue Alleys in the Patterson Park neighborhood, just south of Fayette Street between Lakewood Avenue and Glover Street, and between Rose Street and Luzerne Avenue.

Both neighborhoods continue to work on greening initiatives. The Patterson Park Neighborhood Association recently received a $250,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust for just that.

In Butchers Hill, Andrew Crummey, chair of the Butchers Hill Association's Streetscape Committee, said that about 15 trees have been added to the neighborhood this year, with assistance from the city.

The neighborhood's getting greener, but in a controlled fashion. Butchers Hill is one of the few neighborhoods in which all trees are, at the moment, fully pruned, which Crummey said is "fantastic."

He also noted the neighborhood's planting strips--green strips of grass or other plants between the sidewalk and the road--at the 100 block of South Chester and the unit blocks of North Collington Avenue and North Chester.

"If we could coordinate the curb bump-outs and the planting strips, a lot of water would be absorbed," commented Crummey.

—Erik Zygmont