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Coming clean

NORTH LIBERTY– When it rains, most of us think about the grass that needs it, the picnic it ruined, the crops it will save or perhaps the basement it will fill.
Few of us think about the whereabouts of that rain once it rolls off our lawns and out of our lives.
The truth is, we should.
As rain runs over lawns, driveways and city streets, it picks up undesirable hitchhikers like fertilizers and pesticides, oil from cars and machinery, trash, pet waste, and other pollutants and drops them off in our nearby waterways. Storm water is typically not treated at our local wastewater plants; most often, water from storm drains and drainage ditches flow directly into lakes and streams with little or no treatment. Polluted rainwater can degrade water quality significantly, enough to cause our favorite fishing and recreation areas to close due to contamination.
The Iowa Storm Water Education Program ISWEP) has a mission of helping individuals, cities, developers, and industries understand what happens to storm water, and how human behaviors impact the quality of water that runs down our streets, into the storm sewers to local watersheds, and potentially, to the sources of our drinking water.
ISWEP was established in 2004 to provide educational and technical resources to communities, agencies and others to encourage the public’s participation in protecting Iowa’s water quality. Among its many functions, the organization offers training on fertilizer and pesticide management, practices that reduce impact of urban development on local water sources, or designing a business site with conservation in mind. For example, ISWEP can help cities develop ordinances for storm water runoff control or illicit discharge. They also provide practical, real-world information for individual homeowners who can take very small steps that collectively can make a very big difference in protecting our waterways.
Members of ISWEP traveled by bus from Des Moines to Eastern Iowa last Thursday, Sept. 29, to tour Johnson County sites where a commitment has been made to protect our water resources.
They started at Penn Meadows Park in North Liberty, the location of a six-acre drainage basin that collects storm water in that area.
Several rain gardens and a bioretention area were installed at Penn Meadows this past spring and summer. North Liberty’s need for the rain garden was prompted by a stream of complaints from nearby homeowners. North Liberty’s City Engineer Kevin Trom said backyards south of the park, where the city has a drainage easement, were getting flooded during rain events.
The city wanted to install a parking lot to accommodate the new tennis courts and the southern ball fields, but faced the challenge of adding more concrete without sending even more rainwater runoff in that direction.
“We had the challenge of building it without negative impacts,” Trom said, noting the pervious pavement on which the ISWEP group stood last week. Pervious pavement is made with a porous concrete mixture that allows water to permeate and percolate through the pavement to the surface below, which naturally filters the rainwater and slows the flow of runoff. In addition, Trom and fellow engineer from Shive-Hattery Matt Klein worked with North Liberty city employees and the city’s Parks Department to design several rain gardens around the park area, as well as a larger, deeper bioretention cell, all of which collect water to help keep it contained to the drainage area, as well as to remove sediments and contaminants by filtering rainwater through layers of mulch, groundcovers, plantings and sand/soil mixture as it slowly drains to the soil underneath. Eggleston Concrete in Cedar Rapids constructed the parking lot, and Forevergreen Nursery and Garden Center of Coralville installed the rain gardens. The total cost of the project came to about $350,000, Trom said, with $100,000 of it coming from an I-JOBS grant.
The pervious pavement was the most costly part, the construction of the rain gardens and bioretention cell less so.
Lucy Hershberger, co-owner of Forevergreen Nursery and Garden Center with her husband Mike, has been studying rain gardens and other refiltration practices since heard about it 10 years ago. She and Mike got more involved after taking a Master Conservationist course in 2008.
“We live in this area because of the nearby lakes and waterways,” said Hershberger. “We have seen a lot of damage done by poor storm water management practices, and if we don’t start taking care of our waterways now, we are going to end up with so much runoff and pollution they won’t be useable.”
Muddy Creek, for example, is eroding terribly, she said.
“Whenever we get a heavy rain, so much runoff goes into Muddy Creek it’s getting washed out. Storm water management practices will help keep water from gushing and rushing into these small rivers and streams, and instead filter it and release it more slowly into the aquifer.”
That’s one of the reasons Hershberger also installed a roadside rain garden at her place of business, and more recently, a 1,500 gallon tank to harvest water from her building’s roof. The saved water can then be used to water the nursery’s sale inventory and landscaping, which typically takes about 500 gallons of water per week.
Her motives go beyond merely conserving water.
“My goal is to use this for education,” she said. Hershberger intends to put signs on the big white tank that tell others how they might construct a harvesting tank for other commercial applications; even banks, office buildings, and medical centers have potential, she believes. It’s all part of a growing trend, Hershberger said, of governments, businesses and citizens taking initiatives to help to improve water quality in Iowa.
And that’s where ISWEP can help.
ISWEP has created the Iowa Storm water Partnership (ISP) to provide uniform and well-defined standards for municipalities who want to make improvements regarding erosion and storm water quantity and quality. They also have organized a certification program for those who help others install and learn about rain gardens, storm water harvesting, native plantings, and other refiltration practices. More information on the certification program is available at rainscapingiow.org.
“The certification lets you know that these people have done the training, passed the test and have installed at least two successful rain gardens,” said Hershberger. “So homeowners or business know they are working with someone who is knowledgeable and qualified.”
Stacie Johnson, ISWEP’s Eastern Iowa Program Coordinator, said last week’s tour of Eastern Iowa sites was also an educational opportunity for the ISWEP members in attendance.
“Everybody there is involved in these practices on way or another,” Johnson said. “The more we get out and learn about what other people do to create these refiltration processes, the better it is for the future of storm water management in Iowa.”
All the better is for Iowa’s future, as well.