In native soil: Could rain gardens keep the sewage out of our waterways?

rain garden: Photo courtesy of MSD  The rain garden that Jack Francis and his neighbor, Cee Geiss, have cultivated between their Highlands homes.

rain garden: Photo courtesy of MSD The rain garden that Jack Francis and his neighbor, Cee Geiss, have cultivated between their Highlands homes.

Last year Louisville was informed that fixing its post-storm sewage-filled waterways would require some belt tightening. In a printed report announcing “Project WIN” (Waterway Improvements Now), the Metropolitan Sewer District said the initiative would “involve a substantial investment from our customers over the next 19 years.”
August brought one major installment of that investment, a sewage service rate increase of $6.95 per month, that prompted a round of cheers and, of course, the jeers that can be expected with any increase in out-of-pocket expenses. But something must change when an outdated sewer system allows untreated sewage — laden with lawn chemicals and  vehicle emissions and who knows what else — to flow freely into our drinking water every time it rains.

Money will have to be spent: About $800 million anticipated to meet a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency that requires the city to solve the problem. That’s in vogue now: Many cities built before the 1960s are under similar agreements to complete such repair jobs.

Now MSD is suggesting that, along with digging deeper into our pockets, we do a little digging in our yards as well. Rain gardens might seem a little too “eco-mania” at first, but when you’re staring at an upward-ticking MSD bill, you may think twice.

Rain gardens might be one solution to a seriously expensive problem.
They act as nature’s goalies, trapping storm water before it gushes into the nearest street, basement, creek or sewer. A city full of new rain gardens would be a small step toward replacing the natural greenery that once performed this job, cleared away as neighborhoods, shopping centers and their requisite paved surfaces proliferate. Cities throughout the country have successfully used them to remedy sewer overflow and flooding problems, so MSD hopes to encourage Louisville to join in the trend of gardening for the greater good.

Jack Francis and his neighbor built their Highlands neighborhood rain garden to encourage others, but he says there has been a big personal benefit as well, especially considering current drought conditions and generally insane weather patterns. Unlike others who’ve either doubled their water bills or watched their gardens wither and burn, he says his garden is thriving — even though he hasn’t paid to water it since it was planted last year.
“Most people think of gardens, especially something like a rain garden, and they think, ‘I have to go do something,’” he said. “But that’s not the case. It really is maintenance-free.”

That’s because it is populated with native plants that have spent, in some cases, centuries growing in the local climate. They can also thrive without becoming invasive. With a little mulch and a downspout that runs to a rain barrel instead of the sewer, it’s a lazy gardener’s dream. Only the planning and intent distinguish a rain garden from any other. “You literally end up with a garden that is just fascinating,” Francis said, “and really all you have to do is go out and look at it.”

Aesthetics aside, a successful rain garden program might also be in Louisville’s best economic interest. All but one Metro Council member voted for the recent sewer rate hike, and there is no reason to expect that it will be the last one on the road to compliance with federal clean water standards. The rate increase is a line item on your bill intended to directly address the consent decree price tag, which will fund sewer improvements for the next 17 years.

Still, despite many visits, only a handful of Francis’ neighbors have started their own rain gardens, and they remain a rarity in the city.

Louisville could take a cue from Kansas City, Mo. As one version of the story goes, the mayor of Kansas City sat last year in a room full of engineers, planners and other city leaders, discussing the city’s master plan. When she brought up rain gardens as a method of addressing flooding and other issues, an engineer piped up quickly to swat down the idea like a nuisance fly.

“It would take 10,000 rain gardens,” he said.
“Fine, then,” she replied. “That’s how many we’ll grow!”

a natural way: Photo courtesy of MSD  Rain gardens, a natural way to help control runoff during storms, should be plotted fairly large.

a natural way: Photo courtesy of MSD Rain gardens, a natural way to help control runoff during storms, should be plotted fairly large.

She had good reason to stand her ground, and her opinion is shared by people at high levels in the federal government. This past spring, an EPA memo said that, “Green infrastructure can be both a cost effective and an environmentally preferable approach to reduce storm water and other excess flows entering combined or separate sewer systems in combination with, or in lieu of, centralized hard infrastructure solutions.”

It is promising to think that the very issues Louisville is trying to manage could be addressed with a sprinkle of butterfly milkweed and purple prairie clover seeds in lieu of jackhammering streets.

That’s good news for us, a city long past the point where it might be economically feasible to revamp the entire outdated sewer system, said Phyllis Croce, a landscape architect at MSD. She said Louisville doesn’t have a numerical goal for gardens, but that strong participation would make a big difference. Research indicates that rain gardens can reduce storm water runoff by 100 percent in clay soil like ours, and virtually eliminate standing water.

Kansas City is one year into its 10,000 Rain Gardens initiative, which is gaining popularity as garden suppliers see increased sales. Lynn Hinkle, head of a “green solutions” company, manages the project and said just as important as the number of rain gardens in Kansas City have been the combined efforts of surrounding municipalities.

“The interesting thing about Kansas City is that it’s right on a state line border, and so you have two states and about 13 counties that are dealing with water issues in the Missouri River watershed,” she said.
That geographic description sounds eerily familiar, and points to an element of water protection that has yet to be publicly promoted by MSD or Metro leadership. Wrangling all of Kentuckiana into a uniform water treatment policy is probably impossible. Motivating novice and seasoned gardeners throughout the region, however, is about as easy as watching grass grow, and certainly more fun. Hinkle said every community has different needs, but have one thing in common.

“I’ll tell you what isn’t different, though: Gardening is a big, big deal in every community,” she said. “It just is. And you’re addressing that common denominator (with rain gardens).”
Kansas City has confirmed 293 new gardens in one year. A voluntary registration effort is under way to document what they suspect to be hundreds more. Hinkle said a big part of their success has been the approach, which is (fittingly) grassroots.

“When we went out to the public about the rain garden initiative, we made it very much about people doing the right thing in their own yard, rather than the other approach government often takes, which is lecturing people about what they ought to do,” Hinkle said.

It has worked elsewhere, including one Minnesota community that has rain garden block parties. Francis said he hoped his Highlands-Douglas garden might jumpstart something similar, especially as a collaboration of neighbors.

MSD has tried to generate buzz about greener overflow solutions by giving away rain barrels, food-grade throw-aways that held Brown-Forman’s syrups. It is also teaching YouthBuild, a job training program, how to maintain the barrels. Rain garden information available on its Web site is paltry compared to what other cities offer, but the slick new manual is easy to read, and available at the MSD and Kentucky extension offices. It’s full of inspiring pictures that hint at what we could have: A pretty little city where the water’s just fine.

To learn more about rain gardens,

Contact the writer at
[email protected]