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North Hills Monthly

Managing Stormwater Good for Homeowners and Environment

Feb 28, 2018 05:02PM ● By Jennifer Monahan

Swampy backyards. Flooded streets. Damp basements. Polluted streams. Most people only think about stormwater when they have a problem with water, according to Sara Madden of StormWorks Pittsburgh. Madden and her colleagues work to solve those problems.

StormWorks came into being as a direct result of repair and restoration efforts started in 2001 by Nine Mile Run Watershed Association (NMRWA) on the Nine Mile Run, a small stream that flows aboveground through Frick Park in Pittsburgh and below ground through a number of East End neighborhoods. With significant resources invested by various project partners to bring life back to the stream, the group wanted to ensure that the project did not revert to its pre-restoration state. 

Madden explained that the biggest challenge to keeping fresh water clean is stormwater run-off—the result of rain falling on rooftops, asphalt and concrete and then carrying the resulting contaminants directly into streams and rivers.

StormWorks aims to create a market where people are invested in developing a wide range of stormwater management tools on their properties, particularly in ways that are more resilient and environmentally friendly, Madden said. StormWorks employs a variety of strategies to meet this goal.

Two rain barrel initiatives constituted some of the organization’s earliest projects. Over seven years, interns, volunteers and paid staff collaborated with homeowners to install 1,500 rain barrels outside homes in the neighborhoods surrounding the Nine Mile Run watershed. Rain barrels are easily attached to a home’s downspout; during rainstorms, run-off is collected in the barrels where it can be stored for later use in watering lawns or gardens on dry days. The homeowner benefits from lower water bills; the environment benefits as stormwater run-off is reabsorbed into the land.

In 2009, when Madden joined Nine Mile Run/StormWorks, the graduate of Chatham University’s master’s program in landscape architecture brought her passion for urban ecology, garden design and environmental planning to the organization. She piloted a rain garden program, installing rain gardens for residents and for businesses in prominent locations around town. The rain gardens help manage stormwater run-off, raise awareness of how people can make a positive environmental impact and add beauty to homes and neighborhoods.

Today, StormWorks offers a host of resources to help individuals and communities manage stormwater and minimize the environmental impact of stormwater run-off. The organization consults one-on-one to help clients develop workable plans that meet their individual design goals. Madden said that about half of their clients seek StormWorks out because they are interested in sustainable landscaping and helping the environment, while the other half is trying to solve problems like flooded yards or water in their basements.

Whatever the point of entry, StormWorks staff works with clients to meet their needs and to educate people about local stormwater issues. They help clients understand how to reduce their individual impact, Madden explained. 

Those solutions can be in the form of landscape design that not only creates an aesthetically pleasing green space but also manages stormwater on the property. StormWorks is equipped to oversee the entire project from the design phase through installation.

In addition to rain gardens and landscaping, StormWorks offers custom-made stormwater planters for homes and businesses. Madden explained that these containers are a hybrid between rain barrels and rain gardens, utilizing water from a downspout to hydrate a container garden.

StormWorks is unique in its rain barrel offerings. While big box stores typically carry 55-gallon barrels, StormWorks has produced two higher-capacity rain barrels. The NMRWA model holds up to 133 gallons of water. Their Hydra rain barrel, only 18 inches in width, still holds 116 gallons and is ideal for smaller spaces like those found between houses in densely populated neighborhoods. Madden explained that the larger capacity is key to gathering enough of the first layer of rainwater run-off, which can be the most damaging to local waterways.

No single solution such as landscaping or rain barrels or rain gardens will work for every individual, Madden said. Instead, StormWorks staff listens to the needs of each client and then helps them implement a green approach. Madden wants clients to understand the impact each person can have on the community through making environmentally sustainable choices about how to manage stormwater.

Madden is hopeful that creating green infrastructure will benefit the community in ways beyond just aesthetics, improving air quality and creating sustainable habitats. She points to a growing trend in some municipalities toward collecting stormwater utility fees from residents. In those areas, residents who invest in developing rain gardens or similar projects typically receive credits resulting in lower fees. For the staff at StormWorks, however, it is about much more than money.

Madden explained, “We have a finite amount of water. If we continue to treat stormwater runoff as an annoying byproduct, the quality of our water and waterways will continue to degrade. If we can see stormwater as a valuable resource, we can shift people’s perceptions.” 

Ultimately, that shift is good for homeowners, for the community and for the environment.