Shrubs can draw in more rainwater diverted from roofs and other impervious surfaces. Photo courtesy of Clackamas County, Ore.
Clackamas County’s Water Environment Services department set lofty goals for reducing runoff caused by development
Outreach to schools, businesses and other developments helped introduce stormwater remediation measures
Every square inch of pavement is a square inch that displaces rainwater, and it rains a lot in Oregon. With an eye for the consequences of that displaced water getting into the storm sewer system and nearby streams, Clackamas County’s Water Environment Services (WES) Department’s Water Management Program took aim at reducing the amount of displaced rain that leaves large developed properties.
“Large campuses, schools, churches, parking lots,” said Gari Johnson, WES’s community relations specialist, “they were all places rain would fall and wind up somewhere else.”
It was an afterthought, if developers thought of it at all. But it was chief on WES’s agenda.
The department tried to get in on the ground floor on the younger generation with hands-on educational K-12 programming in the Watershed Health Education Program, which ultimately won a 2012 NACo Achievement Award, but those students weren’t in charge of the rapid urbanization in the watershed that was covering the ground with impervious surfaces like cement, roofs and macadam.
The Community Rain Garden Partnership, formed in 2013, focuses more on direct relationships with landowners to try to minimize the impact their properties would have on the storm sewers and the health of waterways. That includes getting the word out about how completed building and paving projects can be augmented and educating decision makers for future development so that rainfall will be taken into account in the real estate design process.
“We already had a great relationship with the school district, so we changed our approach and talked to the principals and the facilities people,” Johnson said. “We wanted to go about it in a way that would build trust, because we’re coming in and trying to change things and they can be wary of that.”
Schools and their campuses turned out to be an excellent test site for low-impact development retrofits, including adding organic matter to soil and incorporating specific types of vegetation in landscaping.
“We had some basic education to do there,” she said. “We had to tell them that some shrubs weren’t supposed to be mowed by the grounds crews, but it was a big moment when we realized there just hadn’t been much awareness before.”
The students are still a part of the program, but there’s an emphasis on the concepts behind stormwater management.
“There’s a higher-level discussion of how water flows, what’s living in it and how it affects the environment,” Johnson said. “Outdoor school should be every day; we should be appreciating the water and habitat that we have.”
WES staff is also doing outreach to non-educational institutions and businesses. One of the most common responses — that a lack of money stood in the way — now gets some help from $30,000 grants the WES will distribute through its Riverhealth Stewardship Program.
Citizen groups, businesses, schools, nonprofits, student groups, faith organizations, neighborhood or business associations and service groups will be eligible for funding to implement low-impact development retrofits that aren’t otherwise mandated.
Johnson said the work the grants will make possible will lead to a more informed discussion during future real estate development.
“If we think about surface water first, how we go about developing properties will change,” she said.
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