Rain gardens make green building projects greener

Audubon Naturalist Society and Habitat for Humanity team up to build rain gardens that will filter storm water on new developments they are building in northeast D.C. The rain gardens cut down storm water runoff by about 70 percent, according to one study.
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sarah Fulton once worked as a social worker, trying to help clients change their ways, but now that she's retired, she is trying to create tiny ecosystems that could help change the world.

Fulton is one of three volunteers who last month helped plant a rain garden at a Habitat for Humanity townhouse development in Deanwood in Northeast Washington.

At the development, volunteer construction crews have been using environmentally sensitive building methods and materials as much as possible. The goal is to create an affordable green community of 53 houses on what had been 4.3 vacant acres off Central Avenue near the Prince George's County line.

Installing rain gardens, instead of using more traditional methods of managing storm water, is one way to meet Habitat's goals of building green and promoting low-impact lifestyles.

The gardens comprise an array of water-loving plants that filter runoff headed for the region's water supply and the Chesapeake Bay. Each garden is expected to handle about 600 gallons of runoff for every inch of rainfall. Without the gardens, the runoff would go directly into the District's storm sewer system.

"If we only build housing, shopping centers and highways, we don't have plants to soak up water," Fulton said as she explained her growing interest in rain gardens and their effect on the environment. The garden is the second on the site, and Habitat plans to plant more.

Unfiltered storm water runoff, which carries dirt, gravel, chemicals, motor oil, farm runoff and other gunk into waterways, is a leading source of water pollution in the Washington area.

In the District, runoff poses special problems because, as in many older jurisdictions, sewage and storm water mostly run through the same sewers. In a heavy rainstorm, storm water can overwhelm the system and send untreated sewage into local waterways.

Dick Brinker, a developer in Prince George's, was among the first in the nation to use rain gardens, when in 1990 he decided to forgo the usual retention pond and install rain gardens in the Somerset development near Bowie. Subsequent studies have shown rain gardens can reduce runoff substantially. At the Somerset development, an analysis found that the gardens helped the development cut down its storm water runoff by about 70 percent.

"They can be very effective," said Delores Milmoe, a lobbyist for the Audubon Naturalist Society who helped organize the planting at the Habitat site.

A fortuitous phone call from Milmoe to Habitat in early fall connected the two groups at a time when Habitat construction chief Dave Gano was thinking about installing rain gardens. Milmoe, coming out of a long and unsuccessful battle to derail the Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, was looking for a new project for the society, a leading regional environmental organization.

Habitat spokeswoman Heather Phibbs said her organization, which sells its houses at cost and provides no-interest loans to buyers of moderate means, was pleased to have the assistance.

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