Rain gardens to the rescue: How Detroiters are working together to protect water infrastructure

If there were any doubts about the importance of water management in Detroit, they were likely washed away with this past month's rainstorms. As roads, freeways, and basements flooded, raw sewage discharged onto the Lodge. Detroiters saw more than four inches of rain in twenty-four hours when the average rainfall for the entire month of September is 2.44 inches. A historic storm in 2014 brought even worse damage.

More than likely, these kinds of storms will become the norm. Extreme weather events like this are probably tied to climate change and unlikely to improve anytime soon. And all of this flooding spells disaster for our local water infrastructure, rivers, lakes, streams, and the Great Lakes.

"It results in a lot of stormwater going into our combined stormwater and sewer systems," Erma Leaphart from the Detroit branch of the Sierra Club explains, "and it overwhelms our treatment facilities. When there's too much volume, some of it has to be released into our waterways. And the problem with it overflowing into the Detroit River or the Rouge River is it's not just stormwater, it's sewage.”

But there's not much homeowners and neighborhoods can do to help the situation. That's why Friends of the Rouge and the Sierra Club started the Rain Gardens to the Rescue program in 2011. They wanted to give everyone the tools to help address some of these problems at a grass roots levelliterally.

Rain garden at Grace Church of Nazarene on Hoover St in Detroit. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Rain gardens are essentially shallow bowls filled with loose soil and planted with native plants that retain the water from downspouts and slowly release it into the surrounding soil.

"They also provide other environmental benefits like habitat creation for insects and butterflies," says Cyndi Ross, who works as a river restoration program manager at Friends of the Rouge, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the Rouge River.

The primary importance of the rain gardens is their ability to help water infiltrate the soil in a way that reduces the pressure on existing water infrastructure and improves the overall water-holding capacity of soil.
Cyndi Ross at the rain garden at Grace Church of Nazarene on Hoover. Photo by Nick Hagen.
"The native plants have deep root systems," Ross explains. "Many of our native wildflowers grow root structures that are eight to fifteen feet deepwhich is deep. And they replace those roots every year, so some die off, and new roots are established. The roots that die off create pore space in the soil for water to go down."

Looking around the Detroit's neighborhoods, one sees plenty of grass in addition to the pavement. But grass growing on compacted soil functions nearly the same as asphalt, doing little to retain or slow rainwater as it moves into sewers.

Since 2012, the Friends of the Rouge along with their partners at the Sierra Club and Keep Growing Detroit have helped build dozens of rain gardens in the city, using a unique pay-it-forward program. Residents and community groups receive grants to pay for the plants and materials to install the rain gardens, but are required to attend a series of classes and help at least two other rain garden recipients establish their gardens.

"I open my blinds in the morning and see my beautiful garden; enjoy watching the butterflies, birds and squirrels play," rain garden grant recipient and Grandmont Rosedale resident Deborah LaViolette says. She also uses the garden as an outreach tool to talk about the issues and educate others in her neighborhood.
Grandmont Rosedale resident Deborah LaViolette and her rain garden. Photo by Nick Hagen.
"My neighbor thought I was growing weeds and wanted to cut down my plants," she laughs. "I explained to her the purpose for the types of plants and flowers planted in my garden. She now appreciates and enjoys looking at my garden. Neighbors stop and ask about it."

The program receives native plants from Keep Growing Detroit and purchases its materials from local businesses to increase the economic impact of the program and show that green infrastructure can help build wealth in a community as well as beauty.

A new drainage fee on Detroit water bills is likely to further increase interest in the program, as credits for rain gardens and other green infrastructure on residential property are expected to qualify ratepayers for bill credits. By installing rain gardens, residents will not only save money on their water bills, they'll be doing their part to help preserve our water infrastructure.

So far, Rain Gardens to the Rescue has mostly installed gardens in a few relatively concentrated areas across the city, hoping to bring neighbors together and build interest.

"We're bringing like-minded people together who live in close proximity, but don't know each other," Ross says. "There's power in that because they're talking about other things they can do to improve the city."

This story is part of a series on measuring on the role of green infrastructure projects in Detroit's redevelopment. Support for this series is provided by the Erb Family Foundation. Read more articles from the series here.

All photos by Nick Hagen
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Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.