By Abby Crisostomo and Erin McMillan
Too often, heavy rains conjure flooded basements, murky pools of water mucking up neighborhood streets, damaged property – and hefty price tags for residents, business owners, and municipalities that have to clean up the mess. It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of rain being a nuisance, we can turn it into the free resource it should be by changing our built environment in large and small ways. Property owners in Chicago and its suburbs have support to help them do just that, thanks to a couple of unique, local organizations on a mission to help people not only weather the storms in their own backyards, but then do something productive with all that water.
In the City of Chicago, Sarah Abu-Absi manages the Sustainable Backyards Program, part of the city’s Dept. of Transportation and established by Chicago’s 2003 Water Agenda, which called attention to our need for water conservation and preservation. Chicago’s Sustainable Backyards Program provides residents with knowledge and incentives to help them create more environmentally friendly landscapes in their own yards. Signature initiatives include free educational workshops and a rebate program that offers up to 50 percent off local purchases of specific trees, native plants, rain barrels, and compost bins (helpful for providing nutrients for your new trees and native plants.)
The program delivers benefits above and beyond stormwater management. “Chicago purifies and treats 800 million gallons of water every day,” says Abu-Absi. That’s an enormous number few people think about while out watering their lawns. Treating and delivering that much water requires large amounts of resources, including labor, time, energy, and money. The impact of the energy consumption adds up to more than 255,000 metric tons of CO2 a year – the equivalent of adding more than 75,000 cars to the road every year. Every gallon of rain used instead of treated, potable water is a small step toward keeping down costs and energy consumption.
In the suburbs, another Sarah – this time Sarah Surroz – runs the Conservation@Home program, managed in Lake County by Conserve Lake County and in Kane, Kendall, DuPage and Will counties by Jim Kleinwachter at The Conservation Foundation. Conservation@Home is a public outreach program focused on both commercial and residential properties that promotes sustainable landscapes, water conservation, clean soil, and rich ecosystems. The mission of the program is that small changes can add up to big impact, and small changes can save property owners money, time, and other resources. “People want to do the right thing but oftentimes aren’t sure what that is,” said Surroz. “This program makes it easier for folks to get specific tips so they can select projects that work for their own lifestyles, budgets and properties. At the end of the day, people want to be able to say, ‘I contributed, and my investment was reasonable.’ This program supports that.” Conservation@Home also provides free landscape consultation to property owners to help them make their landscaping more sustainable and eco-friendly.
Both programs have evolved over time as staff learned how to best motivate and cooperate with property owners. Case in point, in the early years of Chicago’s Sustainable Backyards Program, people purchased but often failed to install rain barrels, often because they didn’t know how. That’s one reason the city stopped handing out free barrels and instead developed a rebate program and educational workshops, both of which require people to be more invested in reaping the benefits of their rain barrel. The rebate program also helped generate a local market for private retailers to sell rain barrels and other stormwater conservation tools, which in turn made barrels more widely available and reduced the City’s burden of storing and distributing them. Sustainable Backyards also expanded beyond rain barrels to include compost bins, trees and native plants, to discourage the idea of rain barrels as the “silver bullet” for stormwater relief. After all, if the rain in the barrel isn’t used for trees and plants, it can’t very well capture any water during the next storm.
Lake County’s Conservation@Home program built off the established and successful program developed over seven years by The Conservation Foundation. Before launching it in Lake County in 2011, Conserve Lake County sought input about barriers and opportunities from many varied partners and audiences and then tailored the program to meet Lake County’s needs. Educating homeowners that they don’t have to change the aesthetics of their properties to make the types of changes that improve the ecosystem is one challenge Conserve Lake County has faced with this program. Another is the staffing capacity to meet the huge demand: The wait for property consultation is several months long.
No matter whether it happens in the City of Chicago or in suburban Lake County communities, educating property owners about the importance of stormwater management and re-use is critical to address local flooding and to conserve resources. Chicago Sustainable Backyards and Conservation@Home are both excellent examples of how communities can work with local property owners to turn rain into the resource it should be – whether by capturing and using it productively, for instance to water lawns instead of using treated drinking water, or by funneling it back into the ground to recharge shallow aquifers and nearby waterways. After all, every gallon of potable water saved saves water, energy, and – where water rates are high enough – some money as well.
To get involved, attend an event hosted by either Chicago Sustainable Backyards or Conservation@Home. Visit the WOWW blog for information about events on June 12 and June 21.
- Go to the store! Buy a rain barrel, native plants, and trees, all of which qualify for a rebate from the City of Chicago.
- Go online! Rain barrels are an effective tool when installed and used correctly. Watch this YouTube video to learn how to use a rain barrel properly.
- Use it or lose it. A few days after it rains, be sure to use the water in your barrel so it will be empty the next time it rains. A barrel with no available storage capacity is no help to anyone.
The WOWW Factor
The storage capacity of a “fat boy” water wall, an evolution in rain barrel technology. Standard rain barrels hold 55 gallons.
The amount of rainwater intercepted by a mature evergreen tree in a year.
The amount of rain that falls during a 1-inch storm on a modestly sized single-family home.