What Do a Parking Lot, Stormwater Runoff and A Rain Garden Have In Common? Happy Plants and Healthy Streams


By Andre Bowser

Display explaining the rain garden at EPA’s Edison, NJ facility.

Display explaining the rain garden at EPA’s Edison, NJ facility.

On the surface, it appeared like an ordinary parking lot to me. But off to the sides, a lush wellspring of plants and flowers were bowing in the summer breeze.

Little did I know that it was the stage of a Rain Garden Demonstration Site at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Edison, N.J. installation. This of course is no secret; the EPA touts similar urban ecological models as a matter of good business, just as the Edison site had been oft-touted. But it was news to me – a newbie at EPA in New York.

During a recent summer business trip to Edison from my office in the Big Apple, I literally stumbled on a display that explained why a veritable garden surrounded the parking lot behind me. After tripping on the curb, I reached out and steadied myself on the fixture. I thought it odd that a museum-quality display would be positioned next to a nondescript parking lot.

The display detailed the multi-layered story of the parking lot behind me: how water runoff from rain is routed to nearby plants; how the gravel is waterproof to assist in efficiently shepherding the vital resource; and how the water ultimately ends up in our groundwater, underground wells and springs.   And then there’s the myriad technical benefits, such as helping EPA study “how rain gardens help mimic natural drainage processes” and how they reduce the amount of stormwater runoff that enters the storm sewage systems, according to the display. The site demonstrates how, by reducing the amount of stormwater through a natural filtration process, we reduce the amount of pollutants in our water.

Above all, it’s just plain beautiful. And that such an industrially driven edifice as a parking lot could act as a buoy for plant life – through a symbiotic relationship with nature – is ecological-poetic justice.

Rain water runoff is routed to nearby plants.

Rain water runoff is routed to nearby plants.

For the ingenuity and vision behind the site, the display gives the credit to “research efforts between EPA’s Office of Administration and Resources Management, Region 2, and the Office of Research and Development.” But let’s also give it up to the beautiful plant life at the site, including Red Maple and Dogwood trees; Switchgrass and Common Rush; Highbush, Blueberry and Beach Plum shrubs; Blue Flag, Sunflower and Golden Zizia herbs, among many others, which are all native to Mid-Atlantic rain gardens.

States like New York and New Jersey have long lauded the positive ecological effects of rain gardens. According to EPA’s New York-state counterpart, the Department of Environmental Conservation, “stormwater running off rooftops, sidewalks, driveways, and streets washes pollutants into nearby streams. As if that weren’t bad enough, as stormwater rushes over these hard-or impervious-surfaces, it picks up speed and force, causing local flooding and erosion.”  (Click on the link above to learn how to make a miniature rain garden.)

Back in Edison, N.J., the parking lot, stormwater runoff and rain garden are contributing to healthy plants, and that’s just the positive effect happening on the surface. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find healthy groundwater finding its way to underground wells, and eventually streams.

About the Author: Andre Bowser is the director of the Public Affairs Division in EPA’s Region 2. Contact him by e-mailing bowser.andre@epa.gov.

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