rain gardens

Helping Cleveland Communities

By Marguerite Huber

Vacant lot with dug out section for a rain garden; rest of the area covered with straw to prevent erosion.

Turning a vacant lot into a rain garden.

EPA researchers are turning vacant lots in Cleveland, Ohio into field research sites for exploring the effectiveness of tapping green infrastructure (GI) techniques for reducing stormwater runoff and improving local waterways.

Over the last few years, the research has focused on the feasibility of re-using land left vacant after home demolition to answer questions such as: does the lot have soil that can absorb excess stormwater runoff? Can it provide ecosystem services? And how does the re-use of the lot benefit the local community?

To find out, the researchers initially looked at tree cover, the amount of rubble left after demolition, and ease of water movement on the lot. The cost of preparing the lot for re-use was dependant on the type and quality of demolition.

This research then paved the way for additional projects where EPA researchers have been studying stormwater management through GI installations, such as rain gardens and bioswales, in the vacant lots of Cleveland’s Historic Slavic Village neighborhood.

An ORISE fellow working on the project, Olivia Green, says “green infrastructure allows us to invest in natural capital and nature’s ability to absorb and redistribute stormwater. If we tap into natural capital and ecosystem services, we could manage stormwater to a high degree of quality for potentially less cost.”

Green and her colleagues are gathering baseline hydrologic and ecosystem services data. They will then use this data to collaborate with the neighborhood on a plan to use GI elements throughout the community. With continual monitoring, researchers can estimate the impact of GI implementation and identify where modifications need to be made.

Through the research, scientists hope to find a way to reduce stormwater volume, increase habitats for bees and other pollinators, and increase ecosystem services. But the data is starting to show that local streams and watersheds aren’t the only elements reaping the rewards. Reductions in violent crime and increasing property values have been recorded in the same neighborhoods where green space has replaced former abandoned, unattractive lots.

“We may create a culture that is more connected with the environment in the long term,” Green explains. The results of the research will not just benefit the residents of Cleveland, but could ultimately benefit communities everywhere, inducing a national culture that is more in tune with our environment.

About the author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: Surf’s Up?

By Maggie Sauerhage

When it comes to reading waves, surfers are the experts. But many surfers in Los Angeles won’t even put a foot in the water on rainy days for fear of getting sick from the pollution that flows into the ocean.

Communities in southern California have been looking for ways to stop polluted stormwater from reaching their coasts. Los Angeles is looking at tapping green infrastructure practices as a solution. They hope such practices will not only prevent tainted runoff from reaching popular surfing sites, but provide a new source of water clean enough to drink.

Such an innovative approach shows the growing concern about drinking water across the country. That’s why EPA researchers are studying a variety of approaches—including green infrastructure—to determine cost-effective and sustainable solutions.

Green infrastructure refers to sustainable practices, such as porous paving materials, rain gardens, and cisterns, that reduce pollution by either retaining stormwater–which keeps it out of sewers and prevents overflow—or redirects water into the ground where it can be filtered by plants and soil.

In Omaha, EPA scientists are working with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and city officials to reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs), which threaten human and environmental health through water contamination. The scientists are identifying sites where green infrastructure installations such as rain gardens, rain barrels, and cisterns will have the greatest impact in reducing stormwater runoff and preventing sewers from overflowing.

EPA researchers are also developing a tool the will soon be publically available for use by individuals, developers, landscapers, and city planners to help manage stormwater runoff on their properties. The EPA’s desktop Stormwater Calculator application will provide information on how various green infrastructure practices can reduce runoff based on local soil conditions, average yearly rainfall, and the surrounding environment. Users simply need to enter their zip code to compare different green infrastructure scenarios and see how they change the runoff volume from their location.

The variety of innovative green infrastructure research aimed at cleaning up our water and creating more drinking water resources makes me hopeful that communities will be able to respond to their unique challenges with smart and sustainable solutions. They will also help keep our beaches clean, so that even when it rains: Surf’s up!

About the Author: Maggie Sauerhage is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: Green Infrastructure Making News

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

EPA will help Philadelphia monitor water quality in rivers to measure the effectiveness of green infrastructure.

Some of my fellow bloggers and I have highlighted a variety of ways “green infrastructure” has helped cities save money, and showcased the impact it has had on helping communities become more sustainable.

We’ve even featured a video of EPA scientist Dr. Bill Shuster at work exploring the benefits of rain gardens and other “green infrastructure” techniques to reduce stormwater runoff from reaching local waterways.

We’re not the only ones who have noticed the potential of green infrastructure. A recent update on the online publication Yale Environment 360 highlights Philadelphia as a possible model for the rest of the country.  In June 2011, the city approved the Green City, Clean Waters program, a 25-year, $2-billion plan to reduce combined sewer overflows.

In April 2012, EPA signed off on the project. This is noted as one of the most comprehensive green infrastructure efforts in the country. EPA will help Philadelphia monitor water quality in surrounding rivers to measure the effectiveness of the green infrastructure efforts.

In another recent article, “Save New York by Making it Soft,” New Yorker magazine writer Thomas De Monchaux explores how establishing wetlands around Manhattan could “create new ecosystems, facilitating greater ecological connectivity, improving water quality, and enhancing opportunities for habitat growth.”

Do you have an example or an idea for tapping green infrastructure around where you live? Please share them in the comments section below.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research team and is a frequent “Around the Water Cooler” contributor.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Scientist at Work: Bill Shuster

EPA Scientist Bill ShusterAs a research hydrologist, EPA’s Dr. Bill Shuster conducts interdisciplinary studies that integrate elements of hydrology, soil science, ecology, economics, and law to develop stormwater and wastewater management techniques.

His current work involves the design and testing of “green infrastructure” approaches to urban stormwater management, exploring residential and neighborhood-based technologies such as rain gardens and rain barrels, and how they may impart sustainability through social equity, economic stabilization, and environmental quality.

How does your science matter?

We have a tremendous problem with wastewater management in this country. During wet-weather events, our older combined sewer systems tend to overflow, sending polluted septic flows into our nation’s rivers and streams.

My work matters because it is seeking solutions to that problem by helping us better understand what role green infrastructure—rain gardens, rain barrels, cisterns, urban soils in vacant lots, etc.—can play by absorbing and holding stormwater, reducing polluted runoff, and reduce sewer system overflows.

If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be and what would you like to ask them about?

I would have dinner with Linus Pauling Exit EPA Disclaimer or E.O. Wilson Exit EPA Disclaimer – I can’t decide. I would love to get some insight into how they take their ideas and frame them into research questions, as well as how they would each approach a research problem. I use the word “consilience” Exit EPA Disclaimer with some frequency, and so I tip my hat to E.O. Wilson, and his great book by the same name.

Click here to keep reading Bill’s profile.

For more Scientist at Work profiles, go to www.epa.gov/research/scientistsatwork.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: Rain Barrels Make Me Happy

By Sarah Blau

Rain barrel

This rain barrel in the Carrboro Town Commons brought a smile to my face. Catching runoff from a downspout, it provides water for the nearby landscaping.

I recently attended an outdoor music concert in Carrboro, NC. Whilst enjoying the local bluegrass and exploring the Town Commons venue, I discovered something that brought a smile to my face—rain barrels!

Here at EPA I have learned an awful lot about stormwater and all the problems it causes when it runs off our roads and rooftops into the sewer system or nearby water bodies. (See: Keeping Stormwater In Place) On the positive side, I have also learned of all the cool research EPA is doing to confront this problem using sustainable practices.

It was here that I first learned what rain barrels are, how they help the environment and help cut water utility fees at the same time! These barrels catch water pouring off roofs and store that water for later use such as watering gardens. At the same time, rain barrels keep excess water out of the local sewer system where it can cause flooding and pollute nearby water resources. The best part is that rain barrels are easy to install and many towns have rain barrel give-aways or rain barrels to purchase at reduced cost, or you can even make your own.

Check out this cool video to learn more about rain barrels: Rain Barrels: Small Investment, Big Benefits

Rain barrels are not the only measure you can take at your own home to help curb the problems of stormwater runoff. You could also:

  • Install a rain garden—these gardens, located in low-lying areas, will “catch” water runoff and give it time to soak into the soil.
  • Choose gravel over paved driveways—gravel allows rainwater to soak into the ground where it lands while paved driveways divert rainwater toward the main road or storm drain.
  • Consider growing a green roof—green roofs not only soak up rainwater hitting your roof, but also have been shown to help insulate your home, lowering energy costs for heating and cooling!

After learning so much about rain barrels and other stormwater practices, I lament the fact that I live in an apartment and cannot install my own. At least I can spread the word and hopefully convince you to look into these environmentally friendly, economical, and useful additions for your own home.

About the author: Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She eagerly awaits the day she owns a home and can install her own rain barrels and rain gardens!


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: Soaking up Rainfall and Reducing Sewage Overflows

By Katie Lubinsky

Did you know that 14 billion gallons of untreated sewage overflows each year into Mill Creek from Cincinnati’s combined sewer system? Such overflows can harm environmental and public health and put cities, including Cincinnati, in violation of the Clean Water Act, resulting in costly fines.

In an attempt to mitigate this issue, EPA hydrologist Dr. Bill Shuster is leading a team of scientists to explore how cities can tap rain gardens and other types of “green infrastructure” in Cincinnati and other cities with combined sewer systems.

Combined sewer systems involve a network of grates and pipes that combine storm water runoff and wastewater—from streets, homes and businesses—into one major underground pipe where it flows towards a treatment plant. When heavy rains lead to too much water for the system to handle, the excess overflows directly into a nearby water body, untreated.

I met and filmed Dr. Shuster to explore how cities like Cincinnati can reduce the amount of water flowing into sewer systems. While traveling to a rain garden with Dr. Shuster, I noticed row-after-row of vacant lots. Where buildings had once stood, the lots are now filled with hard soil that acts like impermeable cement, shedding rainfall into the combined sewer system. Dr. Shuster’s research shows how green infrastructure could replace these vacant lots and reduce runoff.

While filming, I learned about Dr. Shuster’s research: green infrastructure soaks up stormwater and reduces the amount and rate of water going into the combined sewer system. Rain gardens are Dr. Shuster’s specialty. He helps install and measure their effectiveness in reducing runoff. Green Infrastructure combines good soils with plants that are tolerant of both drought and heavy rains. The rainfall is stored and infiltrated into the gardens, where it can provide water to other plants near by keeping excess water out of the sewer system!

His research is gaining momentum in other areas with combined sewer systems, most recently in Omaha, Nebraska. It not only helps the systems work well, but these rain gardens and green spaces aesthetically enhance communities and provide other important ecosystem services such as habitat and food for pollinators.

Instead of row-after-row of vacant lots or abandoned houses in our neighborhoods, green infrastructure can replace them and have positive effects for all.

About the author: Katie Lubinsky is a student contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: Keeping Stormwater In Place

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Raining in the city

No where to run: stormwater has no place to go but the sewer.

In the first post of my series on EPA water research, I gave a little history lesson and introduced green infrastructure. This week, we’re going to focus on the cost of combined sewer systems—to our health, our environment and even our economy.

There are hundreds of cities across the country that have combined sewer systems. For example, in New York City, more than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharge out of 460 combined sewer overflows into the New York Harbor alone each year. Think about all the impermeable surfaces in the city: sidewalks, streets, roofs, patios. It’s a concrete jungle.

To manage stormwater—and set up scenarios to see the impact of development—EPA scientists are developing the Stormwater Calculator that estimates the annual amount of stormwater runoff from a specific site and provides city planners, developers, and property owners a way to calculate the result of specific actions on our waterways. The online tool will be available later this fall.

As stormwater flows over the surface of your property, driveways, parking lots, roofs, etc, it picks up lots of sediments, such as animal droppings, tire residue, motor oil, brake dust, deicing compounds (in the winter), fertilizers, pesticides, trash, heavy metals and other pollutants and carries them to the nearest storm drain.

Obviously, there are things that cities can do to help reduce stormwater run off, and the steep price tag that goes with the cost of separating the combined sewer systems.

For example, in Omaha, the city is testing green infrastructure throughout the city to help reduce the $1.7 billion sewer system separation project. EPA scientists are testing and monitoring soils in Omaha, and other cities such as Cleveland and Cincinnati, to measure how successful green infrastructure is at keeping the combined sewer overflows to a minimum.

City of Omaha

Cities like Omaha are looking for ways to use green infrastructure to reduce stormwater costs.

There are steps you can take too.

According to the University of Nebraska, for every 1,000 square feet of impermeable surface on your property, every 1 inch of rainfall generates approximately 626 gallons of water. If you add two 55 gallon rain barrels to your property, you now have water to irrigate your gardens. Add a rain garden, and you probably take care of much of the excess. Now, rain is absorbed back into our aquifers instead of rushing into the nearest storm drain, keeping waterways clean and ecosystems functioning.

Many states and counties subsidize the installation of green infrastructure on property, so check with your county and state government. It’s worth it to make sure we have clean water for generations to come.

About the Author: Known around the office as “AguaGirl,” Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources team and  communicates water research to anyone who will listen or read her blog posts.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: Leaving the Outhouse Behind

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Stormwater flows from a large pipe.

Green infrastructure helps keep stormwater in place.

This week, and every Thursday that follows, I’ll introduce you to the EPA scientists and engineers who work to make sure our water stays clean and that we have enough for generations to come.

Today I’m kicking off a series on green infrastructure while we recognize the role of science and innovation in the Clean Water Act, which turns 40 this year.

What is green infrastructure? It’s actually just a fancy term for rain gardens, rain barrels and cisterns that keep excess water out of our storm drains.

But let’s start with some history. In the mid-1800s, flush toilets came to America. Everyone wanted one so that no one would have to make that nightly cold, dark trek to the outhouse. Soon, though, it became obvious that when you “flush” the toilet inside the nice warm house, the waste has to go somewhere. Initially that somewhere was our streets.

Thankfully, that did not last long.

Motivated by smelly city streets, municipalities added underground pipes to carry the wastewater from homes and businesses and deposit in waterways where it could be diluted and carried away in the current. The pipes, though, also carry stormwater that rushes off the streets during heavy rain.

Welcome to the combined sewer system.

There are approximately 800 cities and towns across America that still use combined sewer systems, including big ones such as New York and Chicago, and smaller ones like Omaha and Louisville.

Today, these systems don’t feed directly into our waterways. The water is first sent to a treatment plant where it is cleaned.

The problem with these combined sewer systems is that when it rains hard, the polluted wastewater doesn’t always make it to the treatment facility, and instead goes directly to our rivers, streams and other waterways. (A violation of the Clean Water Act. And also pretty gross.)

But changing out all these networks of pipes—called gray infrastructure—is costly. EPA scientists and engineers have been working with several municipalities around the country to find alternatives—innovative solutions to efficiently and inexpensively reduce runoff flowing into combined sewer systems.

Each Thursday over the next few weeks I’ll highlight green infrastructure research and best practices while sharing ways you can make a difference in your community.

In the meantime, check out this interactive tool from the Arbor Day Foundation to compare the difference between a community with increased green infrastructure in the form of more trees versus a community with less. Which would you rather live in?

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works with  EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources team, drinks a lot of water and  communicates water research to anyone who will listen.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Green Infrastructure Beats a Giants Parade

By Elizabeth Myer

Yesterday, while most of New York City was gathered outside of our downtown office building to observe the ticker-tape parade honoring the Giants, I, a bitter Philadelphia sports fan, was fortunate enough to spend my morning 60 blocks uptown. As part of the New York Water Environment Association’s 84th Annual Meeting, EPA held a forum to discuss green infrastructure at the Marriot Marquis in Times Square. The green infrastructure panel consisted of four experts who shared their successes and challenges regarding  their respective experiences implementing green infrastructure. 

After opening remarks by EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck, Matt Millea, Deputy County Executive of Onondaga County, kicked off the morning with a riveting presentation that detailed Onondaga County’s “Save the Rain” initiative. Matt went into  detail about the county’s green infrastructure program, a comprehensive stormwater management plan intended to reduce pollution to Onondaga Lake and its tributaries. 

Yale graduate student Erin Gill presented yesterday on the indirect benefits of green infrastructure. (EPA photo)

Fellow panelist Suzanna Randall, a Green Infrastructure Coordinator at NYS Environmental Facilities Corporation, said it best when she reiterated Matt Millea’s offer to “steal our plans, take our ideas!” Suzanna believes that inspiring communities by demonstration, as well as sharing lessons learned, is optimal for spreading enthusiasm about green infrastructure. 

EPA’s own Mike Borst made pavement sound fascinating (yes, I can be sarcastic, but this is not one of those times) when he gave an overview of EPA’s porous pavement parking lot in Edison, NJ. The parking lot, which includes three different sizes of rain gardens to infiltrate rainfall and stormwater, is also the site of a ten year study in which data will be collected to monitor functionality and performance of the permeable surfaces and rain gardens over time, in addition to a variety of other crucial questions. I strongly encourage the permeable pavement skeptics to watch this video

If you regret not being able to attend the conference and would like access to the presentations, check out the videos for each presentation here.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: Fall Classics

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Aaron Ferster

The big yellow school buses have begun rolling into the neighborhood every morning again. The heat waves of the summer have relinquished. And I’ve noticed a leaf or two starting to fade. This can only mean one thing: it’s time for pennant races to get going!

As a former resident of the Bronx—and a life-long Yankee fan—I have spent more Septembers than I care to admit fixated on the epic struggle for baseball’s biggest prize: beating the Red Sox. (Okay, it’s pretty thrilling watching N.Y. win the World Series, too.)

But now that I’ve lived in the DC area as long as I’ve lived in New York, I have to admit that the baseball universe is larger than just two teams. I’ve even started to learn about my adopted hometown’s Washington Nationals.

Although I don’t think I’ll need to worry about choosing between N.Y. and D.C. in the Series anytime soon, I now know one area where the Nationals are already contending: the rain delay.

Earlier this season, a colleague invited me to tag along with a number of other EPA employees for a lunch-hour tour of Nationals Park. The team was eager to tout the numerous environmentally- sustainable, “green architecture” features of their new stadium.

According to their web site, “Nationals Park is the nation’s first major professional stadium to become LEED Silver Certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.” To start, the ballpark is easily accessible to public transportation, and offers bicycles valet parking. A green roof—much like one EPA scientists are studying—sits atop a concession and restroom area.

I was particularly impressed with steps the team has taken to filter ground and stormwater runoff, another area of great interest to EPA researchers. An intricate system separates water used to clean the stadium from rainwater runoff, filtering both before any is released into the sanitary or stormwater drains. The end result is that the entire stadium acts like a giant rain garden (another EPA research subject) that helps protect the nearby Anacostia River. They even take pains to keep discarded peanut shells from entering the wastewater flow!

While the Nationals might not have the line up of the big budget teams up North, they sure do impress with their investment to environmental sustainability. Even this Yankee fan is impressed.

About the author: Aaron Ferster is the managing editor of Science Wednesday, and a frequent contributor.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.