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CS-Oh No! Time for a Rain Garden

Last week’s interview with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper Executive Director Julie O’Neill did a tremendous job shedding light on a wide variety of crucial ecological issues. Through the work of Riverkeeper and the wide range of environmental, labor, and citizen groups that participate in the Great Lakes United coalition, many of these issues will see increased attention from leaders and community members. One of the most damaging of these issues is that of combined sewer overflows (CSOs). While a significant problem, they are also an issue with amazing potential for improvement.
As Julie mentioned, there are steps the average citizen can take to deal with the antiquated sewer systems that plague many older cities. Cities of all sizes, from Boston, MA to Dunkirk, NY, have to deal with the challenges of a single sewer system that carries both sanitary waste and storm waste to the treatment center. This becomes a problem during heavy precipitation events. When the amount of storm water is too great and too fast, the system is designed to overflow and dump untreated sanitary and storm waste into surface water.
Two weeks ago, it was 65 degrees out. While that was unusual, it’s a sign of things to come. All the snow we received last week is going to melt, and soon rain will start falling. All of this stormwater runoff has to go somewhere. And it goes into the same sewer that carries the waste every time we flush a toilet. Heavy storm runoff can overwhelm our combined sewer system, and that means poop in Lake Erie, which means beach closings.
So what is the solution? Giant holding tanks underground? Miles and miles of new sewer lines? Or preventing the large rain storms and snow melt from overwhelming the system in the first place?
A rain garden is a landscape feature that uses depression in soil and a variety of water tolerant plants to temporarily store runoff and help it be absorbed into the soil. This absorption prevents the stormwater that runs off your roof or other impervious surfaces from entering our combined sewer system.
From that brief description, a rain garden begins to sound a bit like a swamp. The smell of rotting plants and the sound of buzzing mosquitoes, however, will not be found in a properly built rain garden. Most rain gardens are designed to only hold water for a short period of time, until it can penetrate into the soil. For the majority of time, a rain garden can look like any other landscape design.
A rain garden how-to manual for homeowners has been published by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. This guide provided advice on the size, location, and contents of your garden. It offers several examples for different soil types and amount of shade.
By selecting the right plants, rain gardens can greatly increase the amount of water that is absorbed into the ground, preventing it from running off into the sewer. Rain gardens can also help filter pollutants and debris from stormwater. With a community known for its annual Garden Walk, Buffalo should become an urban center that embraces creative and pleasing rain gardens.
Blogging for Great Lakes United is Nate Dragg

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