Many communities throughout the country are rebuilding their sewer systems to comply with federal pollution regulations. Nationwide, the work is costing taxpayers billions of dollars. But in some communities, a concept called “low-impact” design is making the projects cheaper and better for the environment. The GLRC’s Erin Toner reports:
Many communities throughout the country are rebuilding their sewer
systems to comply with federal pollution regulations. Nationwide, the
work is costing taxpayers billions of dollars. But in some communities, a
concept called “low-impact” design is making the projects cheaper and
better for the environment. The GLRC’s Erin Toner reports:
Dump trucks, black plastic pipes and huge piles of dirt line the streets of
this suburban neighborhood. It was built on very flat land and water
doesn’t run off. It used to be covered in ponds of wetlands. Now, that’s
causing big problems for people who live here. Their basements are
nearly always flooded and after it rains, they have pools of water in their
backyards for weeks, or months. Many run sump pumps all day and all
Jesse Ramos lives in a white ranch house in the neighborhood.
“Actually, this past couple of months I’ve had a lot of problems with
water in my basement. I’ve actually already been through one sump
pump and I’ve went out and purchased another, just so I could keep up
with that. Right now that it hasn’t rained I’m okay. So, I’m a little
nervous when it starts to rain.”
Fixing these problems the traditional way – with concrete pipes, curbs
and gutters – would have cost 20 million dollars, and it would have
sent polluted storm water straight to the river, but Pat Lindemann wanted
to do the project differently. He wanted to save people money and clean
up the environment. Lindemann often sounds more like the head of a big
environmental group, than what he actually is – the county drain
commissioner for this neighborhood near Lansing, Michigan.
“A lot of people argue that if I own the wetland, I should be able to
destroy it, but you shouldn’t because… what you do on your property
affects the river, every time you over fertilize your lawn, every time you
do not pick up your domestic pet waste… this country has such a vast
amount of beautiful resources, and for 150 years, we’ve done everything
that we could to beat up on it.”
In Jesse Ramos’ neighborhood, Lindemann’s using low-impact design to
rebuild the drain system. It’s costing half as much as concrete curbs and
“In the case of low-impact design, we force the water to go through soils,
to interact with plant roots, to stay on the land slightly longer and
become treated before it leaves to make its way to the river.”
The main way that happens is through rain gardens, one of the main
features of low-impact design. They’re bowl-shaped gardens planted
with native flowers and grasses. Native plants have long roots that draw
water deep into the ground and provide a natural filter for pollution.
Rain water collects in the gardens and becomes cleaner before eventually
reaching the pipe that takes it to the river.
Lindemann’s installing more than seven acres of gardens in the
neighborhood. He says people will have a few hours of standing water in
rain gardens, instead of weeks of water in their backyards.
Jesse Ramos is hearing this good news for the first time today…
“…now you’ll be flooded for about an hour and a half…an hour and a
half…that’s wonderful…and it’s pretty flowers…”
There’s another low-impact design project across town. Drainage
problems were causing backups in peoples’ homes. So, Drain
Commissioner Pat Lindemann built 20 acres of wetlands – right in the
middle of the city.
“It dawned on me, why take the water anywhere, why not just keep it. If
I can find a place to store it, put it and manipulate it, and not take it
anywhere, than I could manage it.”
This site is technically a series of retention ponds, but it’s really more
like a park. A paved walking path weaves around ponds and trees and
over bridges. It’s a place you’d bring school kids to learn about frogs
and birds and about being good to the environment.
This low-impact design project, like the one in Jesse Ramos’
neighborhood, was about half the cost of installing new concrete pipes
from the neighborhood to the river.
Low-impact design projects are happening all over – in Chicago and
Seattle, to more rural communities, and they’re likely to become more
common as cities consider how to cut non-point source pollution – the
leading cause of poor water quality. Non-point source pollution is a lot
of things – the fertilizer we use on our lawns or bacteria from animal
Pat Lindemann says his philosophy is that our dirty rivers will recover if
we start developing the land or rebuilding it the right way – one rain
garden or wetland at a time.
For the GLRC, I’m Erin Toner.