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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Beautifying Milwaukee Through Rain Gardens

Homeowners can help to reduce pollution, improve water quality

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This spring, those who would like to make the environment a greener place need look no further than their yards. Thanks to a novel approach to reduce storm water, we can all become eco-friendly gardeners. Rain gardens were invented in 1990 as a means to reduce storm water in a cost-effective way. Bioretention, which is the holding and filtering of storm water in plant systems, was the solution Larry Coffman, head of environmental programs in Prince George’s County, Md., found to be most practical in reducing water runoff and protecting water quality. He and his team coined the term “rain gardens.” Since then, their approach has caught on around the country, including here in Milwaukee, as a way to improve water quality, reduce storm-water runoff and beautify an area.

The plants in a rain garden have deep, dense root systems that act like a sponge to soak up water during a storm. Their roots are much longer than those of grass, lending the plants the ability to hold much more water than a lawn. The garden is ideally placed in a low spot in a yard, about 10 feet from a house, and in a location where the water flows from a downspout. When it rains, the water that runs off of a homeowner’s roof and into the downspout is directed toward the garden, which absorbs a good amount of the water and prevents it from running into the sewer. The plants in a rain garden are typically native plants, like purple coneflower, prairie blazing star, great blue lobelia, or black-eyed Susans.The water is then filtered naturally back into the ecosystem instead of becoming the sort of dangerous runoff that collects toxins like gasoline and oil from the roads, and bacteria and chemicals from garbage, and ends up polluting our waterways.

Rain barrels are another way to reduce storm-water runoff. Attach them to downspouts and they collect up to 55 gallons of water per storm, which can be used at a later time to water plants.

This year, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is carrying out a Rain Garden Initiative, as well as selling rain barrels. For more information, homeowners can go to the MMSD Web site, http://v3.mmsd.com. To obtain plants at a reduced rate of $1.80 per plant, a minimum purchase of 32 plants is required. The program is open to residents of Wauwatosa and Milwaukee, among others. The deadline to sign up is May 1. The plants will be distributed later during the summer.

Those who would like to learn more about starting a rain garden or installing a rain barrel can attend workshops through the organization Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful, which is hosting classes on both subjects April 24 at the Kneeland-Walker House in Wauwatosa. More information can be found on their Web site, www.kgmb.org.

For more resources on rain gardens, check out the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Web site, www.dnr.state.wi.us/runoff/rg/.