Until about four months ago, when it rained, I didn’t think of it being much more than nature’s way of watering lawns, crops, and outdoor weddings.
But when I started working for WEF in January of this year, I became aware of what happens after it rains, snows, or sleets. I knew there were storm drains, but I did not realize the network of systems both above and below ground managing the remnants of a storm. Then I went with a group of WEF staff on a green infrastructure tour, led by Dr. Dwane Jones, the Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the University of the District of Columbia.
First, I have to admit that prior to the outing I thought green infrastructure meant all green construction in general – LEED-approved structures, water treatment facilities, etc. I didn’t realize it was specific to stormwater. And full disclosure, I actually didn’t even know the term stormwater until I started working for WEF.
Next, I was expecting that we were going to be visiting these amazing facilities. I envisioned that we would be seeing all kinds of cool, “green” equipment churning away, keeping our environment clean. I was looking forward to meeting the operators of this equipment and hearing stories of their eco-adventures.
Imagine my confusion when we pulled up in front of a playground that was no larger than the plot size of the average home. I thought, “Wait. What?! This is a stormwater treatment area? Where’s the facility? Where are the people running the machines to clean the water? Where are the free donuts?”
What I would find out is that the playground included a bioretention area that absorbs stormwater runoff from the lot and partially from the adjacent community. Tucked behind some bushes and shrubs, this bioretention area treats stormwater within 24 to 72 hours of a major rainfall. Okay, I might not have got donuts, but this was pretty cool!
We boarded the bus and headed to our next destination. The entire time Dwane was providing us insight into what other communities are doing with stormwater, the advancements made, and the power of these efforts.
By the time we reached our next destination, I felt like I was starting to get it. We got off the bus and I started looking for the next, cleverly-disguised enclosed treatment area. But as we walked across the parking lot on Mt. Vernon Avenue to these nondescript strips of pavement, Dwane explained that the pavement was itself the treatment area. My brain started swirling. “What? Pavement? Pavement?”
Dwane explained this wasn’t just any pavement; it was porous pavement. That meant stormwater doesn’t run off it like it does with regular pavement. Instead, it seeps through it to be treated by the land. Parking lots are notorious for just about everything a car can leak. And stormwater mixes with all these elements and then washes them down the stormwater drain and into our waterways. This is causing increasing amounts of damage to the life in those waterways. But porous pavement helps reduce that negative impact by allowing the stormwater to seep through to the ground beneath and be treated by nature, all while maximizing use of space. It makes so much sense!
My head was swirling. We boarded the bus again and headed to Alexandria Firehouse 206.This site included a cistern that Dwane explained is a system used to direct, capture, and reuse stormwater runoff for potable or non-potable uses. It was situated next to the station and you could see where the gutters fed directly into the cistern. From there, the cistern had a myriad of tubes that fed the water out once it was collected and treated.
I thought I had seen it all. Oh, how naïve I was.
Our next stop was Beatley Library. As a big fan of books, I was excited to see how they played a part in stormwater treatment. We walked over a little bridge that had a beautiful foliage area beneath it and that ran for over a hundred feet in both directions. We crossed the parking lot and on to another bridge. It too spawned what seemed to be your average, everyday foliage area. Then Dwane pointed out the sloping of the parking lot. He showed how that led the water along the curb to the cuts in the curb that fed into the foliage area – better known as the bioretention area. He explained that the design was meant to capture, absorb, and treat stormwater runoff from the parking lot of the facility. What is so inconspicuous was actually an important part of the stormwater treatment strategy.
Like many average, everyday citizens, I didn’t know – nor ever took time to think about – where our stormwater goes after a storm. And yet, stormwater is increasingly an important focus for large and small communities alike. That’s why these creative uses of green infrastructure, cleverly disguised as parks, libraries, lakes, decorative entry points to restaurants, playgrounds, and parking lots, are not only a way to help treat stormwater but help educate residents at the same time.