What is rainscaping?
Rainscaping refers to the process of enhancing a landscape or property to better manage the stormwater draining off that area. Rainscaping seeks to interrupt the "urban water cycle" before the stormwater flows into the storm drain. Traditionally we have sought to pipe away stormwater as quickly as possible to the nearest river or stream, a process that degrades ecosystems, lowers property values, and raises taxes (who do you think pays for a new road when the old one washes away in a flash flood?)! In a phrase, rainscaping can be thought of as managing rain water where it lands.
What's the big deal?
The below pictures of Plaster Creek were taken less than 24 hours apart. They illustrate the rapid change in water level that occurs after a rain event, this is called a stormwater surge. Stormwater surges on Plaster Creek are unnatural events that exist because of the way we deal with stormwater—we pipe it directly to our streams and waterways as quickly and efficiently as possible. These surges can create dangerous flash floods, but it's not just the change in water level we're concerned about: higher levels of E. coli bacteria, sediment (see how brown the water is in in the picture on the right?!), nutrients from fertilizer, industrial metals, and other pollutants.
Examples of rainscaping
The classic rain garden is designed to be an endpoint for stormwater that runs off a property or off of some type of impervious surface (a surface that water can't drain through, eg. a parking lot, a rooftop, or, to a certain extent, a lawn). Planted with native plants that don't require added nutrients or pesticides, a rain garden captures stormwater and allows it to percolate through soil layers and into the water table in slower, healthier, and more natural way. This percolation process filters out sediment and other pollutants that would otherwise flow into our local waterways and it reduces harmful flash floods that can be common to urban waterways (storm drains empty into streams, not water filtration plants!).
For those of you looking for a more technical overview of rain gardens, complete with calculations, procedures, and site analyses, might check out the Michigan Low Impact Development guide's chapter on rain gardens.
Interested in creating a rainscape? Visit our Rainscaping page.
Bio-swales are similar to rain gardens in that they are vegetated depressions for capturing stormwater and allowing it to percolate into the ground, but bio-swales are designed (often times by engineers) for heavy-duty stormwater management. They're bigger than rain gardens, and they're often less formally planted and manicured.
This bioswale was seeded and planted with native prairie grasses and wildflowers and captures the stormwater from a 2 acre parking lot on Calvin University’s campus. The prairie is now mature enough to have prescribed burns every few years to manage weedy species and encourage the native plant growth. The water must travel through the large s-curve and rise above a standing pipe before it can spill over into a wetland, something that rarely happens. This project is a great example of how native habitat restoration can be used in responsible stormwater management.
Vegetated buffers are an important practice for farmers or anyone who owns land on the creek or any of its tributaries. Keeping trees, shrubs, grasses, and/or wildflowers on the banks of the creek and its tributaries (no matter how small the tributaries!) has a number of benefits to water quality:
- Erosion control: Plant roots form extensive networks in the soil, helping hold it in place and keeping banks from eroding and washing into the creek.
- Shade: Trees and shrubs provide shade to the creek and its tributaries. This cools the water, improving habitat
- Filter: Plants intercept runoff, helping filter out nutrients and trapping sediment. In an agricultural setting, they help filter runoff that can can contain animal manure and E. coli bacteria, preventing health risks downstream.
More and more home owners are using rain barrels to capture stormwater from their roof by attaching their gutters and downspouts to rain barrels. The typical rain barrel holds 55 gallons of water, and it can fill up with just a half inch of rain! Rain barrels can be used to water a vegetable or flower garden, or they can be used together with a rain garden to catch the first 55 gallons of stormwater, which can later be used to water the rain garden duraing a hotter, drier time.
Trees are an excellent solution to stormwater issues, no matter where they are in the watershed. Leaves and branches provide lots of surface area to intercept rainwater, slow-releasing it as droplets are shed to the ground. Trees take up several gallons of water per day, as well as excess nutrients that would otherwise pollute the watershed.
Mulch, compost, or collect, but don't "leaf" them in the streets. Check our our Leaf-let for more information for fall clean-up and feel free to download and share.
Everyone can do something
There are several simple, smaller steps we can all take to improve water quality in Plaster Creek, the Grand River, and Lake Michigan. They can be as simple as moving pet waste to a trash can, reducing the amount of lawn fertilizer you use, or washing your car on lawn or gravel instead of the driveway. Find out more ways to be drain friendly with this short video.
For more information about Rainscaping and the Grand River, LGROW (Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds) has a great website with an out-pouring of resources.