Yes In My Back Yard: Washington, D.C. empowers residents to manage stormwater - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Yes In My Back Yard: Washington, D.C. empowers residents to manage stormwater

Elmhurst College

Washington, D.C.'s RiverSmart initiative helps homeowners install rain gardens like this one to keep stormwater from overwhelming waterways.

Yes In My Back Yard is an ongoing series of case studies on stormwater management incentive programs around the U.S. and Canada.

Name of program: RiverSmart Homes

Location: Washington, D.C.

Organization in charge: District Department of the Environment

Funding source: Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, D.C. 5-cent plastic bag fee

Date started: 2009

Type of incentive: Grants and rebates

Eligible participants: Residential property owners, schools, houses of worship and commercial and multifamily property owners

Goals of program: Education, outreach, stormwater mitigation and high participation among multiple stakeholders

Assessment Metrics: Participation numbers, pollutant load tracking and rough estimates of volume

The relatively low cost to participants contributes to RiverSmart Homes’ success.

The District Dept. of the Environment in Washington, D.C. has residents at the heart of its stormwater incentive programs. The City’s RiverSmart programs offer incentives to homeowners, schools and commercial property owners with grants, rebates and technical assistance. The two programs targeted at homeowners, RiverSmart Homes and RiverSmart Rebates, allow residents to choose from five stormwater best management practices and receive grants and rebates from the District for installing them. As part of RiverSmart Homes, department staff conduct property assessments as a way to educate homeowners, encourage buy-in from residents and determine the best-suited stormwater management practices for each property.

Homeowners can choose from options that include rain barrels, pervious pavers, rain gardens, BayScaping and native trees. Once the property owner has decided what to install, they must get bids from qualified contractors to complete the work. The Dept. of the Environment pays the contractors directly for the work, and property owners who participate pay a copay—usually around 10 percent of the cost.

RiverSmart Rebates, a closely related program, provides opportunities for single-family home owners who don’t want to wait for a property assessment to install rain barrels, cisterns, rain gardens or pervious pavers. These residents front the costs themselves, then can receive rebates by submitting receipts, application materials and photos of properly installed stormwater management options.

The relatively low cost to participants and the personal touch of a one-on-one property assessment contribute to RiverSmart Homes’ success. With more than 6,500 participants, 5,000 of whom have installed more than one BMP on their property, RiverSmart Homes has raised resident awareness and concern about stormwater issues. Multifamily and commercial property owners, houses of worship and schools can participate too—the department’s RiverSmart Communities and RiverSmart Rooftops provides incentives for different kinds of properties. Similarly, RiverSmart Schools offers technical assistance and rebates to schools that install stormwater management measures and develop related curricula.

More recently, the District Dept. of the Environment has targeted two impaired watersheds in the city and now offers residents in those watersheds increased grants and rebates for BMP installation, in partnership with DC Water and the Anacostia Watershed Society. The department also offers rebates for green roofs on buildings of all kinds—residential, commercial and institutional. To date, over 50 acres of roof space in the city have been converted to green roofs and while some are decades old, most have been constructed in the last 10 years.

Lessons Learned:

  • Homeowner buy-in is critical. The property assessments serve the dual purposes of ensuring effective and efficient infrastructure while also educating and empowering property owners. Department staff also work hard to follow up with homeowners to answer any questions or address maintenance issues.
  • Research significantly supports many of the department’s stormwater initiatives. The department conducted a willingness-to-pay survey to determine how much residents would contribute toward private property green infrastructure improvements, and this helped determine the rebate amounts for each strategy. Thanks to RiverSmart's success, the department has received funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to conduct more research on the initiatives’ effects and results.
  • Like Philadelphia, D.C. has a wide range of opportunities for residents, property owners, students and many others to take advantage of incentives for green infrastructure. This ensures that stormwater programs are well-publicized and effective.
  • A well-run program needs little advertising: Many participants learn about RiverSmart through word-of-mouth and neighborhood newsletters. Some see the aesthetic and environmental benefits their neighbors accrue with stormwater management techniques and seek out the program to make the same improvements themselves.

Want to learn more about other intiatives around the country? Our Yes In My Back Yard series is for you!

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