By Kara Riggio
Name your price. That’s what Duane and Frieda Davison did to have a rain garden constructed at their Valparaiso, Ind., home last fall. The Davisons, along with 56 other families in the Memorial neighborhood, participated in the Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) program, which asked residents how much they would be willing to pay to have a rain barrel or rain garden professionally installed on their properties. Those with the highest “bids” received additional funding to cover the remainder of the cost, complements of this publicly and privately funded grant program. Families like the Davisons, who were already interested in making green improvements to their property, jumped at the opportunity. “We were interested in greening our home inside and out,” Duane recalls. “Drainage was on our list, and this program came at a coincidental time.”
Green and grey: A winning combination
Like many U.S. communities built before the 1950s in the Northeast, Great Lakes region, and the Pacific Northwest, Valparaiso was built with a combined sewer system, which collects both sanitary waste (from toilets, sink drains, etc.) and stormwater runoff (rain that falls on pavement, roofs, etc.). When it rains, the first inch or so picks up salts, oils, fertilizers and other contaminants that have accumulated on roadways, sidewalks, roofs and other non-permeable pavement. In Valparaiso, the combined sewer system carries the mixture down to the Valparaiso Wastewater Treatment Plant before it is released into a local waterway. When large amounts of rain fall in short periods of time, the sewage being directed to the wastewater treatment plant may exceed the plant’s capacity, and the community may experience combined sewer overflows, which release this noxious mix into area waterways without any treatment. The city has been working on separating storm sewer from sanitary sewer for several years to reduce and eventually eliminate combined sewer overflow events; however, a large portion of the city is still served by the combined system, and combined sewer overflows still happen every year.
Rain barrels, rain gardens, and other types of green infrastructure, such as green roofs and permeable paving, complement “hard” infrastructure, such as pipes and sewer drains. Both types of infrastructure collect stormwater: hard infrastructure delivers it to the sewer system, and green infrastructure allows it to recharge underground water tables or sends it into a natural detention area, such as a pond, so it can be put to good use. Either way, by reducing the amount and slowing the speed of stormwater entering the sewer system when it rains, green infrastructure helps communities manage flooding. As an added bonus, green infrastructure also helps communities dependent on shallow ground water: When water is allowed to infiltrate the ground, shallow aquifers are recharged.
Encouraging green infrastructure on private property
While municipal and county governments can manage stormwater on public properties, it’s a challenge to spur private property owners to make stormwater management a priority. What encourages private property owners to install green infrastructure on their property to help reduce stormwater runoff? The PES program was designed to help answer that question, explains Rod Ginter, an ecological resource specialist with CardnoJFNew, who led the project in partnership with the City of Valparaiso.
A history of flooding in the Memorial neighborhood and the fact that the sewers in this area are still combined has contributed to a relatively high awareness of stormwater issues among local residents, making the area an ideal location for the pilot project. “Ultimately, this project is not just about the volume of stormwater captured, but about engaging and educating private landowners in a mixed-income neighborhood with stormwater issues, and understanding what it takes to get these homeowners to try stormwater management on their private property to help solve a public stormwater issue,” notes Ginter.
Community engagement and education were essential to the project’s success. At the first public meeting in February 2011, residents learned about green infrastructure and the types of projects they could “bid” on, as well as the details of the reverse auction. A few months later, 567 homes in the neighborhood received auction surveys and fliers. By the June deadline, 57 homeowners had submitted an auction bid, a 10 percent response rate. Residents who were willing to pay close to the actual cost of the project were more likely to be approved for the funding. The U.S. Forest Service’s Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry Division provided the majority of funding for this project through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Additional funding was provided by the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, City of Valparaiso, and CardnoJFNew, a Midwestern ecological consulting and restoration firm. The auction design and economic analysis for the project was completed by RCF Economic & Financial Consulting, and auction decision support software was created by Futurity, Inc., both Chicago-based consulting firms.
While the majority of each rain garden or rain barrel installation was funded by the grant, each property owner made a financial contribution. Market rate is $250 for the rain barrels available through this program. In all, 38 property owners submitted a bid for one or more rain barrels. The average household bid $59 for one rain barrel, and $48 per rain barrel if they submitted for multiple barrels; the maximum bid was $250. In total, 60 rain barrels were delivered, 58 were installed, and only $20 of the bids was unpaid. Of the total $20,500 spent to install all rain barrels, property owners provided $3,428, and the grant provided $17,072.
Market prices for rain gardens vary depending on the size and materials required for construction. The rain gardens constructed in the PES project are valued at about $2,500, but in general cost significantly more than rain barrels. In total, 19 households submitted bids for rain gardens, with an average bid of $393 and a maximum bid of $1,850. Eleven bids were approved for construction. Approximately $60,000 has been spent on rain gardens; of this, property owners covered $6,387 and the grant funded $53,613. About half of the rain gardens have been constructed, and the rest will be completed this spring.
Value of green infrastructure on private property
During every significant rain storm, these 60 rain barrels and 11 rain gardens will capture an estimated 13,050 gallons of run-off. Importantly, rain barrels and gardens are designed to capture the first ¾ inch of rainfall. With an average of 29 to 30 significant rainfalls each year, Valparaiso will prevent some 380,000 gallons of runoff from entering the combined sewer every year. The project partners think it’s a good start.
The Davisons already had a couple of rain barrels and were considering a rain garden when they heard about the PES program. “We didn’t realize that there was a drainage problem in the neighborhood when we moved in,” Davison recalled. Beyond the construction of their new rain garden, the Davisons have disconnected seven downspouts that now drain into four rain barrels and are considering adding a vegetated swale – basically, a depression in the earth with native plants to soak up rain – in their front yard once the city completes planned upgrades to the street and sidewalk. Davison sees this as his family doing its part to enhance their community and environment – and combat a general lack of awareness of finite water resources.
An important lesson learned from the PES project was that property owners need help visualizing how a rain garden could be constructed on their property, as well as its maintenance needs over time. Additional education and outreach within the community may have helped to convince more residents to apply. Since the project began, it seems to have sparked an interest among private property owners to implement green infrastructure on their own property now that they have seen the work their neighbors have done. Meanwhile, the project partners hope that properties with larger amounts of impervious surfaces – driveways, sidewalks, roofs, cement patios, etc. – such as businesses and schools, can be persuaded to participate in the next round of green infrastructure installations.
“Rain falls everywhere, and everybody’s property is part of the system, so it has to be managed everywhere,” says Davison. “Each family can make a difference.” Davison, for one, is looking forward to seeing how his rain garden performs once the plants start to grow this spring.
To learn more about programs in Chicagoland that help are available to help with stormwater management, check out these resources:
- The City of Chicago offers rebates for rain barrels, native plants, trees and compost bins through its Chicago Sustainable Backyards Program and Workshops.
- The Chicago Center for Green Technology hosts free workshops, including many that will help you manage wet weather on your property.
- A World Water Day Summit will be hosted at Purdue University-Calumet in Hammond, Ind., on March 22.
- Save your rainwater. Disconnect your downspout and connect it to a rain barrel. Use this water for watering plants, grass or washing your car.
- Use a rain garden. Construct a rain garden and incorporate native plants. Rain gardens will help to manage storm water on your property and enhance the beauty of your property.
- Make your property rain friendly. Look for opportunities to remove impervious surfaces and allow rainwater to naturally percolate into the ground.
- Get your neighbors involved. Green infrastructure works best when applied across neighborhoods. When your neighbors stop to admire your new rain garden, talk to them about constructing their own!
The WOWW Factor
10% of the families in the Memorial neighborhood in Valparaiso, Indiana participated in the grant program.
60 rain barrels were installed.
11 rain gardens were awarded for construction.
$374,878 total grant money allocated for the green infrastructure project.
380,000 estimated gallons of run-off will be prevented from entering the combined sewer system per year.