Living Green: Wrangle the Water

rain barrel

It’s raining again. As I type, rain is hitting the hard surfaces of rooftops, parking lots and roads and the result is small rivers flowing down the streets. All the flooding that happened in the Northeast this summer is a reminder that a) this is exactly what experts predicted would happen to our area because of climate change, b) we have failed to mitigate climate change fast enough and c) we are now in the even-less-fun phase: We must mitigate and adapt at the same time.

How will local governments cope with the increased rainfall in a sustainable way? Even without climate change most towns in the U.S. have struggled with how to handle flooding and stormwater pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency cited runoff as one of the fastest-growing sources of pollution, containing everything from raw sewage to trash to toxins entering our waterways from city sewer systems. And now we add in homes flooding and roads being washed away.

We need a new way of managing water, a greener way, called green infrastructure.

Green infrastructure mimics natural habitats, absorbs excess water and can help conserve water, while also preserving water quality. It’s a combination of practices that include permeable pavements, green parking lots, green roofs, rain barrels, rain gardens, bioswales and tree planting. Here’s what you can do.

Harvest your rainwater.
By one calculation, an inch of rain on a 1,300-square-foot roof generates 832 gallons of runoff. Gutters and downspouts channel this water into storm drains but it could be collected in rain barrels to water a lawn or garden (just don’t use it on leafy greens). Governments could require new construction to install below-grade cisterns that can hold a lot of water or require developments and renovations to offset the water from roofs and driveways in their landscaping.

“We need to be thinking about both the redirecting side and the saving size,” says Jennifer Lerner, an educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Putnam County. “We never know if we are going to get a flood or a drought.”

Plant a rain garden.
Rain gardens, with native shrubs, perennials and grasses planted in a shallow basin, are designed to trap and absorb runoff and can be 30 percent more absorbent than a conventional lawn. 

Volunteers on a horticultural hotline operated by the Cornell Cooperative Extension on weekday mornings (845-278-6738, ext. 220) often fields calls about rain gardens. They will advise you on plants (nearly all native), and Cornell has a lab that can analyze a soil sample for $15 to suggest fills or other amendments. Lerner cautions that while creating a rain garden sometimes requires heavy equipment and fill, it will be worth it.

Plant more trees.
Jennifer Zwarich, who chairs the Tree Advisory Committee for the Cold Spring Village Board, will always advocate more trees but also believes a large-scale water-systems study is needed. 

She notes that many areas in the village lack canopy cover but don’t have enough space to plant because of narrow sidewalks or overhead lines. Private property is the best hope, such as on Route 9D, where donated shade trees were planted on the property of community-minded businesses (see

Use permeable pavement.
If you need to redo your driveway, a parking lot or private road, consider permeable pavement that allows rainfall to seep through to the soil and groundwater aquifers. 

Build a bioswale.
Bioswales are long, deep channels of native plants, grasses, flowers and customized soils that run parallel to parking lots or roads and can handle large quantities of runoff.

Adaptation may cost more money upfront, but it has and it will cost us more to do nothing, or to keep building fragile infrastructure. Our short-term thinking has failed us repeatedly.

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