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South Bend Church Models Smart Rainwater Handling

Jeff Parrott • DATE: May 3, 2018

SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE- Under mandate from the federal government, the city is spending millions of dollars to separate storm and sanitary sewers with an ultimate goal of sending cleaner water into the St. Joseph River when it rains.

It’s a decades-long, colossally sized project.

But a church on the city’s east side spent a couple of hours Saturday showing that there are small things that individual homeowners and businesses can also do in the meantime.

Members of First Unitarian Church, 801 E. Washington St., held a “rain garden party” where they installed four rain gardens at the church. Rain gardens are one of several smart stormwater management practices, such as green roofs and permeable concrete, aimed at keeping rainwater out of street sewer drains. Downspouts channel rainwater from the roof, via buried tubing or open trenches, to small, bermed basins where the property owner grows decorative plants.

Similar to when it recently installed solar panels on the church roof, the rain gardens further one of the Unitarian Universalists’ seven principles, “to take care of the interconnected web of which we’re all a part … and taking care of the environment is one part of that,” said Alan Hamlet, a church member who happens to also be an assistant professor of hydrology and water management in the University of Notre Dame’s College of Engineering.

The church received a grant from the St. Joseph County Soil and Water Conservation District to offset 75 percent of the costs, which included renting some heavy digging equipment and buying plants, and also received technical assistance from the Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem.

To help comply with the federal standards, the city already has begun requiring residents to disconnect downspouts from combined storm and sanitary sewers by the end of 2020, and the city will pay for those disconnections if they’re done by the deadline. People who disconnect can simply let that water infiltrate the soil in their lawn. But sometimes a steep grade can send the water through the lawn and into the street anyway, Hamlet said.

“The rain garden slows it down, basically, keeps it out of the stormwater system so it doesn’t contribute,” he said. “All of the runoff from this roof is going to stop reaching the street. This is going to make a big difference in terms of the church’s stormwater footprint.”

The grants, available to anyone living in the county, can run up to $5,000 for businesses and $3,000 for residences, but the rain gardens don’t usually cost that much, Hamlet said. Homeowners should be able to do the work themselves with a simple shovel, he said.

People who obtain the grants or install rain gardens without them can receive free technical help and guidance from Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem, a partnership that’s funded partly by the city and a National Science Foundation grant that was obtained jointly by Notre Dame, Indiana University South Bend and Ivy Tech Community College, said Alicia Czarnecki, a city engineer who volunteers separately as the group’s community outreach and education coordinator.

BCEE plans to soon, sometime this summer, add a page to its website, www.bce2.org, that will include a “homeowner’s checklist” with step-by-step instructions. Until then, residents and business wanting help, including tips on the best kinds of plants to grow, can email the group at bowmancreekproject@gmail.com.

Hamlet said the best plants are native to the area and have deep roots that allow survival without frequent watering once they’re mature.

The Bowman Creek initiative has targeted the city’s southeast side, where the creek runs, and has helped 10 homes there install rain gardens over the past two years, Czarnecki said. It also has helped two homeowners in the Northshore Triangle, and is in talks with a school that Czarnecki declined to identify until the agreement is finalized.

Czarnecki thanked First Unitarian Church for hosting the event Saturday, and for creating such a visible example for others to follow.

“We call them rain garden parties, kind of a play on Tupperware parties, but we’re spreading the idea rather than a product,” she said. “Really it’s the community coming together to help plant plants, make the space beautiful and solve stormwater challenges.”

 

### Original article published on May 5, 2018 to southbendtribune.com ###