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Rainscaping encourages homeowners to control stormwater

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 10, 2012 - Come January, a new initiative will make it easier than ever for individuals to install residential rain gardens.

“Rainscaping is a range of voluntary measures that a landowner can take to manage their yard in a way that captures stormwater onsite and improves water quality in our creeks,” said Karla Wilson, manager of the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance. “That range of techniques can be anything from a rain garden to a cistern to simply taking out turf grass and replacing it with trees, shrubs and perennials.”

Wilson’s group, a project of the Missouri Botanical Garden, is hoping to create a more cost-effective way of implementing such measures for individuals in 20 different municipalities along Deer Creek, an 11-mile River Des Peres tributary which cuts across the heart of St. Louis County trailing an extensive watershedthat spans an area from Creve Coeur to Shrewsbury. The local waterway has excessive runoff created by the explosion of compacted soil and concrete that accompanies urban development. Often polluted with everything from garbage to manure to yard waste, the runoff results in sedimentation, erosion and flooding -- all of which threatens both property and the natural ecosystem.

The new program, known as RainScape Rebates, will offer rebates of up to $2,000 to offset as much as 75 percent of the cost of certain landscaping improvements. The Rebates program is funded through a $200,000 allocation by the St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District. A website with details will go live early next month with an application deadline coming March 1.

Wilson said the efforts relate back to the 1972 Clean Water Act, the first stage of which was designed to clear up “point source pollution” such as that produced by factories.

“There was a lot of progress made in that and now, as a nation, we are tackling a much more difficult challenge which is how to address non-point source pollution,” she said, referring to residential overflow. “This is a much more complex and challenging problem to address to achieve the goals of the act.”

To be a part of the program, a resident must live in a participating municipality that has approved the goals of the Watershed Plan Summary, a 26-page document produced by the alliance. Wilson said about a dozen cities around the area have already passed a resolution in support of the blueprint or are scheduled to take up the matter soon.

“Basically, we just want to improve water quality for the river’s section in University City,” said Lynnette Hicks, senior public works manager for her municipality, which lies on the northeastern end of the watershed. “We want to make sure residents have the ability to install practices that would either slow down water from entering the streams or at least filter it.”

Hicks said that while the council had passed the resolution, it hadn’t been posted on the website yet. She thought the rebate program was helpful though she said it was hard to estimate how much participation it would generate since it doesn’t cover the full cost of improvements.

“With many of these items, [residents] want to do these things, but they don’t always have the funding or the expertise,” she said.

Mike Dell’Orco, an alderman for Warson Woods, said his town was among the first to take up the resolution this summer.

“We don’t even have storm sewers in one part of our city,” said Dell’Orco, who is also the acting city engineer. “We just have sanitary sewers. Especially for the residents in that part of town, which was built pre-WWII…it allows us to minimize the amount of storm runoff that shoots off the pavement into Warson Woods Creek and then into Deer Creek.”

“Let’s face it: Back in the '30s, '40s and '50s when some of this construction took place, there was no Clean Water Act,” he added.

Dell’Orco noted that he’s seen people engage in rainscaping and recycling efforts on an individual level so he thinks the desire is there.

“What you’ve seen over the past couple years is that people realize that our natural resources are worth protecting,” he said. “They make the effort and we’re pretty fortunate to have homeowners in Warson Woods that do this stuff on their own without any prompting other than trying to be a good citizen and do their own part.”

David Gipson, assistant city manager of Richmond Heights, said he hasn’t seen much residential rainscaping in his area yet though a recent grant from the Deer Creek organization did allow the city to put up a rain garden project in three different parts of the municipality.

“We typically don’t have a whole lot of issues with flooding through the city,” he said. “But realizing that we’re a part of the larger watershed, there’s importance there as far as being a good neighbor to the other communities around.”

He hopes the rebate program will spur private property owners in the area to take steps. The initiative was announced on the city’s website last month.

“That’s what this really goes after,” he said. “The rebate program goes straight to the residents and allows them to make improvements on their own properties. That’s the first initiative we’ve had like that so I’m interested to see how much success we have and how much interest there is in it.”

In Creve Coeur, another participating town, resident Fran Cantor believes the rebate program could make a real difference. At least she’s hoping it does. Living near a wetland at the north end of the watershed, she’s tired of seeing the discarded toys that have accumulated near her yard.

“You should see the ball collection I have,” she said, noting that the nearby creek that brings soccer balls and basketballs has also begun to widen and even contributes to sewer backups in some places. “Over the years, I’ve watched it grow and I’ve personally planted things down there to try and absorb it because it covers half my yard at points in the year.”

As chair of the city’s horticulture, environment and beautification committee, she also believes the program will do more to encourage the nurturing of Missouri plants, whose deep roots can help break up the impervious soil leading to better conditions to prevent runoff.

“On our committee, we’re looking at this from a plant point of view and any time you plant a native plant, you are helping the whole environment because you are helping native bees and native birds and you are increasing the beauty of the area,” she said. “It’s all one big package for us.”

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