An Elegant Solution to Stormwater Runoff

December 13, 2010

Over the past six Mondays, we’ve learned where New Jerseyans can turn for help with water resources (e.g. stormwater management challenges), urban infrastructure issues,  and landscape rehabilitation issues. The Center for Urban Environmental Sustainability (CUES), in partnership with County Extension Agents, provide this wealth of knowledge and practice – an incredible resource – to farmers, county and town officials, Sustainable Jersey team members, town engineers and planners, school planners, school officials, and others, and always with an eye toward environmental justice.

Today is the final guest blog in our series from CUES, which takes a look at the value of rain gardens as a community building and robust educational tool for kids and adults alike.

Building a Rain Garden at Holmdel

New Jersey has gone through a high degree of urbanization since Lincoln created the Land Grant College system to help find solutions to local problems in our communities. One of the most significant changes associated with this urban boom is the addition of impervious surfaces that do not allow water to penetrate into the soil – asphalt, concrete, roof tops and all manner of building materials. These impervious surfaces are being added to New Jersey’s landscape at a rapid rate. As of 2007 New Jersey contained 800 square miles of concrete and asphalt, and in the five years between 2002 and 2007 the state added the equivalent of 9 football fields (including end zones) of new impervious surface every day!

We construct impervious surfaces for many good reasons, but the environmental impacts are significant when rain water cannot infiltrate to recharge groundwater supplies and natural flow paths for water are changed, causing polluted stormwater runoff to end up in our streams. A low cost method for cleaning stormwater and slowing the speed of runoff is to route rainwater to areas where native vegetation and soil can capture, treat and infiltrate it. But because of the amount of development in our State, natural areas that were once plentiful in the landscape have been greatly diminished. In the early 1990’s a Maryland builder added bioretention areas – drainage depressions containing native plants – to a residential development, and the Rain Garden concept was born. These planted areas mimic natural ecosystems that have been replaced by impervious surfaces by slowing stormwater flow and providing ideal locations where the water can infiltrate into the ground.

The Rutgers Environmental County Agents, working with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Team, have been busy demonstrating and building Rain Gardens all over New Jersey! A great example of the Rain Garden program occurred this past year at the Village Elementary School in Holmdel, New Jersey.

Holmdel Rain Garden CUES project

This project is part of a Watershed Implementation Plan for the Ramanessin Brook Watershed. The gardens lie within a courtyard that is located in the center of the school, and was previously a vacant, abandoned space no longer being used for school activities. The design team proposed transforming the space into an outdoor learning center that would showcase rain gardens, a versatile and effective stormwater best management practice (BMP). This particular Rain Garden system treats runoff from 10,000 square feet of surrounding rooftop, improving water quality and reducing runoff volume from the school property. The courtyard design includes outdoor educational gathering areas, a rain barrel, canopy trees, and four rain gardens.

Inside the courtyard, existing gutters and roof drains were directly connected to the storm sewer system, contributing to the erosion and nonpoint source pollution impacts that had been documented in the Ramanessin Brook. As part of the project, the gutters and roof drains were disconnected from the storm sewer and reconfigured to discharge stormwater into four rain gardens that capture, treat, and infiltrate the roof runoff. To renovate the 18,000 square foot courtyard, volunteers removed 5,000 square feet of impervious asphalt.

Kids and the Holmdel Rain Garden CUES project

Adults and kids planting the Holmdel Rain Garden

Including the school staff and students in the project was critical to its success. In addition to re-engineering the stormwater flows, the project landscape architect and designers collaborated with scientists and school leaders to facilitate an enrichment program for all staff and students at the school and the community, who were given the hands-on opportunity to learn about functions and benefits of rain gardens and their positive contributions to the environment. Each of the pre-K through 3rd Grade classes at the school studied watersheds, stormwater, and the impact human activities have on water quality through a “Messy Town” lesson using an EnviroScape® Watershed model. Following the classroom example, students went outside into the courtyard and participated in planting the rain gardens. Under the direction of landscape architects, designers, environmental professionals, and volunteers, all students had the opportunity to install native plants in one of the four rain gardens. The rain gardens are organized around a central raised berm that creates four unique corner spaces for formal or informal gatherings. Each rain garden consists of an individualized palette of native plant species that provides interest during each season of the year. The “Winter” rain garden contains plants with winter seeds, berries, and bark; the “Spring” rain garden is planted as a wildflower meadow; the “Summer” rain garden provides butterfly habitat; and the “Fall” rain garden consists of native warm season grasses and autumn blooming plants.

Planting the Holmdel Rain Garden

Building the Holmdel Rain Garden CUES project

Construction of Holmdel Rain Garden

Close up of Holmdel Rain Garden

Over 800 students participated in the Rain Garden project activities over a three-day period. Funding, coordination and execution of the project involved all levels of community partnership from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, to the County Planning Board and Park Commission, Municipal Environmental Commission, Board of Education and local volunteers. The Village Elementary School rain gardens design brought structure, function, and education to an otherwise abandoned space. The school now revels in having a “Park Oasis” within its walls providing seasonal interest, beauty, and opportunities for enriched learning experiences. The previously flat, blank canvas of turf and asphalt has been transformed into an organized landscape that features depth, drama, and topographic relief.

Although Lincoln could not have imagined removing asphalt (an early use in the U.S. was as paving material in Newark, NJ in 1870) to re-create natural green ecosystems, we think he would be pleased that the Land Grant College system he founded is still addressing New Jersey’s environmental challenges and furthering the education of the state’s students. •

The Rutgers Center for Urban Environmental Sustainability and the Environmental & Natural Resource County Agents would like to thank the Dodge Foundation for allowing us to share our successes as we begin to address New Jersey’s urban-suburban environmental issues. Our mission is to provide the technical scientific, engineering, and design expertise needed by local communities. You can contact us through CUES or through the individual Environmental County Agents:

Michele Bakacs
Middlesex & Union counties
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County
42 Riva Avenue
North Brunswick, NJ 08902-4734
Phone: 732-398-5274
Fax: 732-398-5276

Patricia Rector
Morris & Somerset counties
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Morris County
P. O. Box 900
Morristown, NJ 07963-0900
Phone: 973-285-8300, ext 225
Fax: 973-605-8195

Salvadore Magnifico
Salem & Cumberland counties
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Salem County
Suite 1
51 Cheney Road
Woodstown, NJ 08098-9982
Phone: 856-769-0090
Fax: 856-769-1439

Michael Haberland
Camden & Burlington counties
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Burlington and Camden Counties
152 Ohio Ave.
Clementon, NJ 08021-4120
Phone: 856-566-2914
Fax: 856-566-2910

Amy Rowe
Essex & Passaic counties
Cooperative Extension of Essex County
621a Eagle Rock Avenue
Roseland, NJ  07068
Phone: 973-228-3179
Fax: 973-364-5261

Images courtesy of CUES

To read the entire Center for Urban Environmental Sustainability guest blog series:
Part 1: Urban Solutions Are Just a Call Away
Part 2
: Tranforming Newark Lot by Lot
Part 3: The Teaneck Creek Conservancy and Eco Art
Part 4: Overcoming Camden’s Toxic Past
Part 5: The Hackensack Riverkeeper Green Roof Project