PHS and PWD Leading the Way in Stormwater Runoff Innovation

For July 10, 2019

PHS and the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) just completed the largest residential rain garden ever created in the city – a project at the forefront in addressing a major environmental challenge faced by cities across the U.S.

The rain garden planted in Germantown exemplifies Philadelphia’s leading role in the battle to reduce the harmful effects of stormwater runoff.  When it rains in a city or suburban area without a way to soak into the earth, it flows across streets, sidewalks, and lawns, picking up pollutants including litter, fertilizers, motor oil or other chemical contaminants, carrying them to streams, rivers, bays and oceans.

Cities are finding new, green ways to address this issue. On the East Coast, Philadelphia is leading this effort with the Green City, Clean Waters program, a 25-year, $3 billion plan to reduce combined sewer overflows with a focus on green stormwater infrastructure. As part of this program, Rain Check, funded by PWD and managed through a partnership of PHS and the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, is making major contributions toward this end goal.

“Thanks to the support of many partners, including city agencies, non-government organizations, and a growing public that embraces green solutions, PWD has accumulated 1,400 Greened Acres as of May 2019. And we have many more greened acres in the queue to ensure that we achieve our 10-year milestone of 2,148 Greened Acres,” says Jeanne Waldowski, PWD’s Community Initiatives Specialist. A Greened Acre is the performance metric agreed to by the State and Federal governments used to track Philadelphia’s progress toward meeting its Clean Water Act targets. Each Greened Acre represents an acre of impervious cover within the combined sewer service area that has at least the first inch of runoff managed by stormwater infrastructure. This includes the area of the stormwater management feature itself and the area that drains to it. “Although the impervious roofs, pavements and patios that Rain Check transforms into green practices are not yet officially counted towards our total, Rain Check has done a phenomenal job of engaging and educating residential property owners -- our customers -- about the importance of stormwater management and the ability of a single home to contribute to the greening of Philadelphia. Rain Check consistently ranks as the most popular program among our customers. We and PHS have much to be proud of.”

Green infrastructure works similarly to the way nature filters rainwater, using rain gardens, downspout planters, permeable pavers and other porous surfaces, and landscaping. These green systems collect water during a storm and prevent it from running into sewer systems, and in the process, filter out pollution and gather water for re-use. Additional benefits include increased property values, as well as improved health and well-being of residents in the community.

Through Rain Check, Philadelphia residents can have stormwater management tools installed at their homes for free or for a reduced price. Rain Check offers free rain barrels and up to $2,000 in funding toward downspout planters, rain gardens, and permeable pavers, as well as de-paving. The only requirements for residents to participate are to attend a free educational workshop hosted by PHS, and if applying for a tool other than a rain barrel, to be current on their water bill.

Since the program began in 2012, Rain Check has held 337 workshops with a total of 7,075 attendees and installed 2,964 rain barrels, 563 downspout planters, 82 rain gardens, 282 permeable paver projects, and 45 depaving projects.

One example of the program is the recent installation of the largest rain garden to date in Philadelphia. Ann Torockio and Roger Estes, of Germantown, heard about the program and thought it would be a good way to help with the stormwater problem. “It’s a nice win-win,” says Ann. “I had seen rain gardens in public areas, so I signed up for a workshop.”

A rain garden is a shallow, planted depression designed to absorb and filter stormwater runoff. For a rain garden on a residential property, a downspout that drains stormwater runoff from the home’s roof is disconnected at ground-level and directed into the garden, usually through a pipe buried in a shallow, underground trench. In the case of the Germantown project, the downspout was disconnected from the city’s combined sewer system, preventing runoff from contributing to sewer overflows when it rains.

Ann and Roger attended a spring workshop led by Zach Popkin, PHS Residential Stormwater Program Manager, and were soon introduced to Bria Tobie, of Realty Landscaping Corporation, a contractor handling installations of some of the Rain Check projects. “I was inspired by their house and yard – they had a great blank slate,” says Bria. “It gave us the opportunity to create a much larger rain garden than we typically install.”

“They have sun, they have shade,” Bria explains. “We were able to do a woodsy look behind the garden and a meadow design inside the garden.” She used pollinator-friendly natives including Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’, Iris versicolor, Eutrochium dubium ‘Little Joe’, Aster ‘Purple Dome’, Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’, Fothergilla x intermedia ‘Mount Airy’ and Veronia noveboracensis. Several non-native plants were used as well, including Viburunum ‘Alleghany’ and Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, plus others. “These perennials and native grasses will produce large swathes of color and take them through each season, early spring through fall, with bright colors and beauty,” says Bria.

Bria designed the garden using a planting pattern that aligns to the wettest and not as wet zones. With 285 square feet of surface area and a depth of seven to eight inches, the rain garden was sized to manage, at a minimum, one inch of rainfall landing on the 750-square-foot roof area that is draining into the rain garden. Assuming a single one-inch storm, this translates to approximately 469 gallons. About 90 percent of all rainfall in Philadelphia is 1 inch or less, so PWD often uses 1 inch as a benchmark for stormwater projects.

“All the stars aligned for the Torockio/Estes project,” says Zach. “They had a particularly large roof area draining to a downspout that could be easily disconnected from the city sewer system, they had a large lawn area that provided a perfect location for the rain garden, the program funded a whopping $2,000 towards the work, and we had enthusiastic homeowners eager to do their part to manage stormwater and protect our local waterways. It was a home run for the Rain Check program.”

Due to climate change, our region is expected to become warmer and wetter. “Some landscape designers are thinking about how to size rain gardens not just for our current rainfall patterns,” Zach says, “but also for the future based on the impact climate change will have on our region.”

For more information on the Rain Check program go to: www.pwdraincheck.org.

 

(Pictured above: Roger Estes and Ann Torockio, with their son, in their Germantown rain garden.)