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rain garden in construction

Stormwater Solutions: Rainscaping

storm water imageWhat is rainscaping?

Rainscaping refers to the process of enhancing a landscape or property to better manage the stormwater draining off that area. Rainscaping seeks to interupt the "urban water cycle" (pictured at right) before the stormwater flows into the storm drain. Traditionally we have sought to pipe away stormwater as quickly as possible to the nearest river or stream, a process that degrades ecosystems, lowers property values, and raises taxes (who do you think pays for a new road when the old one washes away in a flash flood?)! In a phrase, rainscaping can be thought of as managing rain water where it lands.


What's the big deal?

eroding city park

The below pictures of Plaster Creek were taken less than 24 hours apart. They illustrate the rapid change in water level that occurs after a rain event, this is called a stormwater surge. Stormwater surges on Plaster Creek are unnatural events that exist because of the way we deal with stormwater -- we pipe it directly to our streams and waterways as quickly and efficiently as possible. These surges can create dangerous flash floods, but it's not just the change in water level we're concerned about: higher levels of E. coli bacteria, sediment (see how brown the water is in in the picture on the right?!), nutrients from fertilizer, industrial metals, and other pollutants.


Plaster Creek Low Water LevelPlaster Creek High water level








For more information about the condition of Plaster Creek and its impairments, see the watershed problems section of our webpage.

Examples of rainscaping

Rain gardens

Curb Cut Rain Garden -- Photo courtesy of City of Burnsville and Barr Engineering The classic rain garden is designed to be an endpoint for stormwater that runs off a property or off of some type of impervious surface (a surface that water can't drain through, eg. a parking lot, a rooftop, or, to a certain extent, a lawn). Planted with native plants that don't require added nutrients or pesticides, a rain garden captures stormwater and allows it to percolate through soil layers and into the water table in slower, healthier, and more natural way. This percolation process filters out sediment and other pollutants that would otherwise flow into our local waterways and it reduces harmful flash floods that can be common to urban waterways (storm drains empty into streams, not water filtration plants!).

For those of you looking for a more technical overview of rain gardens, complete with calculations, procedures, and site analyses, check out the Michigan Low Impact Development guide's chapter on rain gardens.

storm drainAt the risk of offending some stormwater engineers, we'll use the term "rain garden" to refer to any native plant garden that is designed to detain or retain stormwater in some fashion. Since this freshly planted rain garden (right) has a storm drain at its center, it might not fit the traditional definition of a rain garden (it is not an endpoint for all the stormwater that flows into it because of the storm drain), but once the young plants fill out the garden and grow their deep roots, this rainscape will still capture a lot of stormwater that flows from the surrounding lawn and pavement before it reaches the drain.

Interested in creating a rainscape? Visit our page on installing a rain garden.



Bio-swales are similar to rain gardens in that they are vegetated depressions for capturing stormwater and allowing it to percolate into the ground, but bio-swales are designed (often times by engineers) for heavy-duty stormwater management. They're bigger than rain gardens, and they're often less formally planted and manicured.

bioswale before plantingbioswale after planting








This bio-swale was seeded with native prairie grasses and wildflowers (before: left, after: right) and spans two sides of the parking lot. Notice the giant rain barrel attached to the building! This project is a great example of how native habitat restoration can be used in responsible stormwater management, and it's located right in downtown Grand Rapids (Catalyst Partners, LLC.)!



Vegetated buffers are an important practice for farmers or anyone who owns land on the creek or any of its tributaries. Keeping trees, shrubs, grasses, and/or wildflowers on the banks of the creek and its tributaries (no matter how small the tributaries!) has a number of benefits to water quality:

Rain Garden
  • Erosion control: Plant roots form extensive networks in the soil, helping hold it in place and keeping banks from eroding and washing into the creek.
  • Shade: Trees and shrubs provide shade to the creek and its tributaries. This cools the water, improving habitat
  • Filter: Plants intercept runoff, helping filter out nutrients and trapping sediment. In an agricultural setting, they help filter runoff that can can contain animal manure and E. coli bacteria, preventing health risks downstream.


Rain barrels

rain barrelMore and more home owners are using rain barrels to capture stormwater from their roof by attaching their gutters and downspouts to rain barrels. The typical rain barrel holds 55 gallons of water, and it can fill up with just a half inch of rain! Rain barrels can be used to water a vegetable or flower garden, or they can be used together with a rain garden to catch the first 55 gallons of stormwater, which can later be used to water the rain garden at hotter, drier time.

Interested in a rain barrel? Check out WMEAC's rain barrel workshops for more information on purchasing a discounted barrel!




Trees are an excellent solution to stormwater issues, no matter where they are in the watershed. Leaves and branches provide lots of surface area to intercept rainwater, slow-releasing it as it droplets are shed to the ground. Trees take up several gallons of water per day, as well as excess nutrients that would otherwise pollute the watershed.


Fall Leaves

Mulch, compost, or collect, but don't "leaf" them in the streets. Check our our Leaf-let for more information for fall clean-up and feel free to download and share.


Everyone can do something

There are several simple, smaller steps we can all take to improve water quality in Plaster Creek, the Grand River, and Lake Michigan. They can be as simple as moving pet waste to a trash can, reducing the amount of lawn fertilizer you use, or washing your car on lawn or gravel instead of the driveway. Find out more ways to be drain friendly with this short video.

For more information about Rainscaping and the Grand River, LGROW (Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds) has a great website with an out-pouring of resources.