Rain gardens ; Specialized gardens filter, protect rainwater:[All Editions]
Pat Shellenbarger / The Grand Rapids PressThe Grand Rapids PressGrand Rapids, Mich.: May 4, 2003.  pg. L.1
Full Text (871   words)

Copyright Grand Rapids Press May 4, 2003

Under a freeway overpass, surrounded by concrete and with traffic racing overhead, Patricia Pennell and Chris Lehr were talking about flowers.

They imagined the rainwater, which runs off the freeway through drainpipes and into the storm sewers, would be diverted, nurturing a garden of native plants, rather than polluting the nearby Grand River.

"It's simple," said Lehr, a native ecosystem consultant. "In my mind, we need more green."

"We need a lot more green," said Pennell, nearly drowned out by the roar of traffic.

The kind of garden they propose -- a "rain garden" -- is not exactly new, since nature was creating them long before humans began paving over much of the earth. But the idea of re-creating areas to capture and filter rainwater that otherwise would run into the sewers and, eventually, the lakes and streams, picking up pollutants along the way, is new.

"The nice thing about this is it does mimic nature," Pennell said.

As a water quality specialist with the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), Pennell is an advocate for planting rain gardens to absorb and purify water that runs off roofs, parking lots, lawns and streets. She'd like to see one in every yard.

"Rain is not dirty," she said, "but we have turned rain into a pollutant called storm water runoff."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates 70 percent of the pollution in lakes and streams is carried there by storm water.

"Whole neighborhoods near Plaster Creek are oblivious to the fact that their yards have anything to do with that stream," Pennell said. "The fact is every home in Grand Rapids is contributing humongous storm water runoff."

In a gentle three-day rain, the amount of water that runs off the average home's roof would fill an Olympic-size swimming pool, she said.

"When you start talking hundreds and hundreds of homes," she said, "it's an absolute flood."

Larry Coffman, associate director of environmental resources in Prince George's County, Md., came up with the idea of planting rain gardens. In deference to environmental engineers, uncomfortable with the touchy-feely name, he called them "bio retention systems."

Pennell, a former high school science teacher, heard of rain gardens about three years ago, shortly before joining the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. She checked into them, became a disciple and posted essays about them on her Web site, www.thornappleriver.com.

She got e-mail inquiries from all over the world:

-- What does a rain garden look like?

-- How can I build one?

-- What plants should I use?

"I'm getting 150 e-mails a day," Pennell said. "There's such a huge interest in it all of a sudden. Nobody wants to hear about storm water, but everybody wants to hear about rain gardens."

Last July, WMEAC created a project called Rain Gardens of West Michigan, funded by the Steelcase Foundation, the Frey Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the City of Grand Rapids. The project's Web site, www.raingardens.org, offers information on how to build a rain garden.

Rain gardens generally should be planted in low spots and often require digging out the top couple of feet of soil, particularly if it is clay, and replacing it with a mixture of sand, compost and top soil. Most have a dip in the middle to collect rainwater diverted from a nearby roof, driveway or parking lot.

When properly designed, the garden will absorb the water in a few days, before mosquitoes can breed there.

Pennell stood in the middle of a rain garden she helped plant last September next to a city office building at 660 Market Ave. SW. It's the first of six demonstration rain gardens WMEAC intends to plant in the city. Before this garden was planted, water from the roof had run downhill and pooled in the spot.

"What they had was a big mud puddle," Pennell said. Now, the water soaks into the soil, eventually reaching the groundwater.

"It's not a pond," Pennell said, "and, although it has wetland plants in it, it's not a wetland. A rain garden is a different kind of animal."

She prefers native plants that easily adapt to wet or dry conditions. Volunteers planted day lilies, asters, purple cone flowers, Indian grass and other plants, most still dormant.

"They'll be coming up like gangbusters pretty soon," Pennell said.

Later that morning, at Third Street and Broadway Avenue, under the southbound U.S. 131 and westbound Int. 196 interchange, she and Lehr imagined a similar rain garden.

Lehr, president of Nativescape, a landscaping company based in Manchester, was hired to help plan the Turner Gateway, an 11-block stretch of natural gardens along Turner Avenue and U.S. 131 between Richmond Street and Int. 196. City officials see it as an alternate entrance to downtown, particularly to the new convention center under construction.

Lehr plans to include a series of rain gardens using storm water from the freeway that now goes into the sewers. While that water likely will be polluted with fuel, asbestos from brake linings and salt, Lehr said the soil naturally filters out most contaminants.

"I think this is fantastic," Pennell said. "For one thing, it fits right in with our program. This is an example of what people can do."

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Section:   Home & Garden
Text Word Count   871