Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Homeowners install rain gardens to reduce runoff

By HALEY WALKER
Capital News Service

LANSING –Anne and Peter Bray of Birmingham began making their lawn more sustainable more than a decade ago. They’ve removed all traditional lawn grass and transformed their entire property into a working rain garden.

“Looking ahead, lawns will become more and more unsustainable and expensive to maintain,” Anne Bray said. “As a species, we’ve become almost totally disconnected from the planet and have forgotten that we are completely dependent upon clean water, the health of the soil and sunlight for survival.

“Rain gardens are a good way to reverse this disconnect,” she said.

The Brays reflect a growing trend among homeowners across the state to put in rain gardens to reduce runoff damage and the spread of contaminants.

Shallow basins are dug into the landscape to collect water after it rains. The areas are planted to filter the water, which often contains fertilizers, pesticides, oil and other pollutants.

Too much water entering sewers can also damage the shape and construction of waterways.

“All that water drops into the sewer and gets delivered to a river all at the same time,” said Bob Newport, a storm water specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Chicago. “That big surge of water at the same time erodes the channel.

The West Michigan Environmental Action Council has helped create 40 rain gardens in the Grand Rapids area since 2001.

“It’s already a trend, because when we started the program no one had heard about it, and now it’s a household name,” said Patricia Pennell, the council’s program manager of rain gardens and low impact development.

“All over Michigan, municipalities, engineering firms, and individuals are doing them,” Pennell said.

The Southeastern Oakland County Water Authority in Royal Oak teaches residents how to create the gardens and recently held a public workshop for about 60 participants.

The authority provides homeowners with guidelines on choosing a site, size, soil and plants. For instance, native flowers and shrubs are important because they’re already adapted to the landscape and are more likely to contribute to the natural ecosystem. They also require less water and fertilizer.

“There’s an art to designing the rain gardens,” said Lillian Dean, coordinator of the authority’s healthy lawn and garden program. “The best vision for these is one of slow and steady implementation where the homeowners know enough about the garden to maintain it.”

According to the EPA’s Newport, creating rain gardens is a growing trend. Cities with rain garden programs might also be getting a jump-start on new stormwater regulations, he said.

The EPA recently announced plans for more comprehensive regulations for its stormwater program.

One of the agency’s goals is more consistent rules for discharges from developments and redevelopment, like street reconstruction projects. The proposal would also expand the areas subject to federal regulation.

The new regulations will be developed over the next two years, Newport said.

“We would never say you have to put a rain garden in your front yard, but what we could say is that we need to work on how much stormwater runs off,” he said. “We do need to find a new way to absorb the water into the ground, and rain gardens are really the solution that works the best in many cases.”

Haley Walker writes for Great Lakes Echo.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Environment

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