New Report Examines Low Impact Development Benefits & Costs

Creative rain garden downspout in SE Portland. Photo by Candace Stoughton, EMSWCD.

Clean water and vibrant communities go hand in hand. Urban areas are increasingly using green infrastructure to create multiple benefits for their communities. However, there have been questions whether strong stormwater standards could unintentionally deter urban redevelopment and shift development to environmentally damaging sprawl. Working together, Smart Growth America, American Rivers, River Network, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and NRDC commissioned a report by ECONorthwest, Managing Stormwater in Redevelopment and Greenfield Development Projects Using Green Infrastructure. Highlighting several communities that are protecting clean water and fostering redevelopment, the findings show that clean water and urban redevelopment are compatible.

To read the report:

To read the executive summary:

To learn more, River Network will host a webinar on this work by ECONorthwest lead researchers on August 17th, 1:00 EST/10:00 PST – to reserve a spot:


Rain Garden Training Opportunity for North Coast

New rain garden at work in front of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park Visitor Center. Photo by Will George, NPS.

The rain brings many benefits for North Coast watersheds, business owners, cities and residents. But it can also be a bane if–as stormwater runoff–it carries pollutants or causes floods in local streams. Capturing, controlling and filtering some of this stormwater runoff in rain gardens is one way to help beautify landscapes while improving the health of watersheds.

The purpose of the training is to help residential gardeners, landscape contractors, planners, public works employees and others learn the skills needed to design, build and maintain rain gardens and serve as local resources to other community members interested in building them.

Trainers: Robert Emanuel, Oregon State University Extension Service and Oregon Sea Grant, and Colby Weathers, Native Landscape Design, LLC.

How to prepare: This is a hands-on train-the-trainers course. Dress for both indoor and outdoor training components.

When: Saturday, April 23rd, 8:30AM – 5:00 PM Please register on-line by Monday, April 18th*

Where: Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, Ft. Clatsop Visitor Center, Netul Room 92343 Fort Clatsop Road, Astoria, Oregon 97103

Cost: $30.00; cost includes lunch, Oregon Rain Garden Guide and additional materials. Oregon State Landscape Contractors Board Certification of Continuing Education Hours available.

To register:

For more information, call me at: 503-842-5708 x 210.

Stormwater: not out of sight nor out of mind…

Oregon does not have the same level of interest in diving as the calmer “inside coast” or Puget Sound region of Washington. But on both coasts, stormwater outfalls are common features off of communities.

So it is no surprise that a Seattle-based diver named Laura James and a couple of buddies took video cameras down to where one West Seattle storm drain empties into Elliot Bay. With that camera, they captured some sobering footage that was highlighted on the local NPR station’s (KPLU) blog.

Even as a somewhat jaded watershed professional–I found this a sobering reminder of why it’s important to move away from the typical approach of “piping and dumping” the stormwater somewhere else. Instead, we need to move towards techniques that emphasize infiltration and processing of stormwater by natural systems such as those embodied by the phrase Low Impact Development.

Cycle of Insanity: The Water Cycle by Surfrider Foundation

Members of the Surfrider Foundation have put together a rather entertaining, but largely acurate cartoon on the water cycle and its mis-management. While I have problems with the way a couple of the items are presented, I found the video largely entertaining and well done. I think it’s good enough to explain some of the concepts that I like to spend time on: Low Impact Development, water conservation, and wetlands preservation. I appreciate the video’s global perspective and the producers’ explicit strategy to entertain while informing us.

My only substantial critique for this video is that seems to spend much of its 20 minutes dwelling on the urban side of coastal water management–and by that, I mean that large mass of urbanity to our south: California. In their defense, the producers are working out of the confines of the very urban San Diego and Los Angeles areas and are aiming this squarely at people living in these kinds of coastal cities.   All that said, I have embedded it here for your enjoyment.

The Cycle of Insanity: The Real Story of Water from Surfrider Foundation on Vimeo.

LID for Green Industry Professionals

Some Resources for Green Industry Professionals to learn more about Low Impact Development:

Ways to for Green Industry Professionals to help make Low Impact Development happen locally

  1. Support stormwater management regulation
  2. Re-examine local land use controls
  3. Encourage open-space developments
  4. Create demonstration projects
  5. Collaborate
  6. Experiment within your industry and partner with others (like universities)

Roles for Green Industry Professionals in Low Impact Development

  1. Arboricultural roles—tree preservation, maintenance and replanting
  2. Bioretention—providing stock and expertise
  3. Hardscapes—learn about pervious pavements and use them in designs and/or stock them
  4. Get involved—planning commissions are  often sorely lacking in professional help

Low Impact Development: Two Introductions

A trench drain leads to rain garden. Photo by R. Emanuel, OSU.

A trench drain leads to rain garden. Photo by R. Emanuel, OSU.

I have blogged a lot about Low Impact Development (LID) on H2ONCoast.  LID is a stormwater management strategy that emphasizes conservation and use of existing natural features along with a network of small-scale stormwater controls (e.g. rain gardens, roadside swales, pervious pavers) to more closely mimic natural hydrologic patterns in residential, commercial and industrial settings.  When it comes to curbing pollutants from the urbanized portions of watersheds, LID applications have been shown to be very effective in the long run–and cheaper! These techniques also slow down the pulses of stormwater that cause flooding and damage to receiving streams.  As one county professional in rural Boardman, OR puts it, the practices conform to “cowboy logic” by letting nature take over what is normally a very expensive, very engineered set of solutions (to pipe stormwater and send it “away”).

Last week, I spoke to the Association of Oregon Counties “County College” for new and returning elected county commissioners on the subject and wanted to share the slide presentation on the subject.  Download Introduction To Low Impact Development for AOC 9.17.09

Directly related to this, the Pacific Northwest Water Program, partnered with WSU Extension’s video department, and brought us a glimpse of what private citizens, local governments, and agencies are doing to prevent polluted runoff from rushing to water resources.  The video tour traveled to two high desert communities and a Puget Sound island to document strategies used in those diverse climates to manage rain and snow melt runoff.Three PNW experts then discussed the case studies and fielded questions from the audience.

Ten Tillamook County residents participated from our offices here on the North coast. You can still check out the tour by going to the WSU Conference Services website (though I confess I don’t know how long the video will be archived at the site–so if you are interested, don’t wait too long).

Bay City Rain Garden

During the last week of June and the first of July, eight Tillamook County OSU Master Gardeners and other volunteers pitched in to complete the last of three demonstration rain gardens in Tillamook County. This last rain garden was installed in Bay City near the intersection of 7th and Main.  Other gardens have been installed in Pacific City and downtown Tillamook at Hoquarton Slough Park.

Mick Dressler and Gary Albright dig into the Bay City rain garden site, June 29th. Photo by R. Emanuel.

Mick Dressler and Gary Albright dig into the Bay City rain garden site, June 29th. Photo by R. Emanuel.

A rain garden is a sunken garden bed that collects and treats stormwater runoff from rooftops, driveways, sidewalks, parking lots and streets.  Rain gardens work like a native forest, meadow or prairie by capturing and infiltrating stormwater from rooftops, driveways, and other hard surfaces.  They can be planted with attractive native and horticultural varieties of perennials, grasses, sedges, shrubs and trees.

Rain gardens are a great way to add beautiful landscaping to your yard as well as protect our overloaded urban stormwater system and precious water resources!  Why are rain gardens so important?  When the Pacific Northwest was covered with forests and prairies, rainfall dripped through branches and vegetation, seeped through duff, and sank into underground aquifers as it slowly flowed to nearby water bodies. As our landscapes become developed, the rainfall that lands on hard surfaces drains to pipes, ditches, and storm drains and is routed directly to streams or into the sewer system.  Water that once took days, weeks or months to reach a stream now gets there in a matter of minutes. The result is too much water all at once. As a large pulse of fast-moving water flows down the stream system, it scours and erodes the stream bed, moves gravel downstream and degrades habitat for life in the stream.  In addition, the runoff picks up pollutants like chemicals, fertilizers, and oil from parking lots, and in some places, carries it straight to streams without being treated. Too much water arriving in a short amount of time and carrying pollutants negatively affects the health of our streams, lakes and estuaries. Rain gardens help restore the natural flow and treatment of water in the landscape which is critical to ensure healthy streams, even in towns.

A backhoe makes easy work of the site, digging out our ponding basin. Photo: R. Emanuel, OSU.

A backhoe makes easy work of the site, digging out our ponding basin. Photo: R. Emanuel, OSU.

Tillamook County OSU Master Gardeners Andrea and Larry Goss, Chris Bolger, Phyllis Holmes, Carla Albright, Kathie Reames, and Evelyn VonFeldt, plus Gary Albright and Mick Dressler pitched in for three days of hard work. The volunteers began by installing silt fence to keep sediment out of nearby Patterson Creek, and then watched as a skillful backhoe operator from Bay City let his machine do most of the digging.

Volunteers Gary and Carla Albright, Chris Bolger, and Kathie Reames plant in the rain garden. Photo: R. Emanuel, OSU.

Volunteers Gary and Carla Albright, Chris Bolger, and Kathie Reames plant in the rain garden. Photo: R. Emanuel, OSU.

Once the main basin of the rain garden was dug, volunteers set to work grading the ponding surface, constructing berms, placing rocks and mulching.  Together, they planted more than 100 native and non-invasive grasses, sedges and sedums around the garden.  While the weather was unusually warm, everything has survived their initial transplant into the new garden. On the final day of work, several volunteers drove down to Tillamook Bay where they selected a spectacular piece of driftwood to finish the garden.

Proud volunteers (Chris Bolger, Larry Goss, Andrea Goss and Mick Dressler) standing behind their newly constructed rain garden in Bay City, OR on July 1, 2009. Photo by R. Emanuel, OSU.

Proud volunteers (Chris Bolger, Larry Goss, Andrea Goss and Mick Dressler) standing behind their newly constructed rain garden in Bay City, OR on July 1, 2009. Photo by R. Emanuel, OSU.

The Bay City rain garden represents the culmination of three years of research and development around North coast appropriate stormwater management by local water resources and community development faculty Robert Emanuel. It also marks the last of three major demonstration projects funded by Oregon Sea Grant.  Now it’s up to community members around Tillamook County to try out these attractive options on their own residential and commercial properties. This winter, OSU will publish the Oregon Rain Gardens Guide to help coastal residents and others around the state to assess, design and install the gardens themselves.  Contact the OSU Extension Service Tillamook County for more information.

If you would like more information on rain gardens, Ecoroofs, pervious pavers and other green stormwater management techniques, be sure to attend the free video tour “Stormwater Management: One Back Yard at a Time” hosted at the OSU Extension Service office on September 15 from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM.  I will be on hand afterwards to answer questions and talk about how rain gardens and other stormwater solutions work on in Tillamook County.

Greening the Infrastructure

There is much talk of infrastructure out there in the media these days. This is because infrastructure–the roads, buildings, water systems, sewers, schools, rails and hundreds of other physically engineered underpinnings of modern life in 21st century America–are getting a giant monetary shot in the arm.  A sizable chunk of the  $700 plus billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act advanced by the Obama administration was aimed to rebuild, improve or expand infrastructure. That money has begun to take roost in thousands of projects around the country.  You can get an interesting look at these by viewing a ProPublica website detailing who spends what and where it goes. Over $7 billion went specifically to water projects according to the Water Environment Federation.

In Oregon, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act poured $44 million into the state’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, $28 million into the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, and about $4.5K into water quality planning (604b) grants.

With regards to water, we are mostly concerned with two kinds of infrastructure. The first are the water systems that deliver it in a usable and (usually) safe state to million of drinking water taps, agricultural fields, businesses, parks or public spaces.

stormsewer grate

Stormsewer Grate, Photo by R. Emanuel

The second chunk of infrastructure takes the waste water away from our fields, parks, homes and businesses.  That infrastructure is critical from an engineering, industrial, and public safety perspective. Often the water is laced with bacteria from human and animal waste, organic chemicals and heavy metals from our industrial processes, flushes petroleum from  roads, carries fertilizers and pesticides from agriculture, gardens, and landscaping.  For much of human history, we disposed of that water with the idea that “dilution is the solution to pollution,” in that we got rid of it quickly enough and far enough away from human settlements, it would no longer be a problem. In cities and towns, we focused on sewers to transport and treat human or commercial waste, and stormsewers for the water that falls on our hard surfaces (i.e., those that don’t absorb water the way a native landscape of plants and soil normally do).  In all cases, we have designed convenient ways to ferry water out of town and into the nearest water body where it will dilute and go away. Unfortunately, we have discovered that there is no “away” for stormwater and its pollutants.

All of this we call “gray” infrastructure. And it’s in serious need of work, but also some re-thinking.  One way to look at the dilemma of what to do with stormwater and its expensive, deteriorating infrastructure is to try to replace it where possible with “green infrastructure.”  What is “green infrastructure”?  The non-profit Conservation Fund defines it this way:

Green infrastructure is strategically planned and managed networks of natural lands, working landscapes and other open spaces that conserve ecosystem values and functions and provide associated benefits to human populations.

The foundation of green infrastructure networks are their natural elements – woodlands, wetlands, rivers, grasslands – that work together as a whole to sustain ecological values and functions. Healthy functioning natural or restored ecological systems are essential to ensure the availability of the network’s ecological services.

Suburbs against a park.

Suburbs abut a park.

Additional elements and functions can then be added to the network, depending on the desires and needs of the designers – working lands, trails and other recreational features, cultural and historic sites. These all can be incorporated into green infrastructure networks that contribute to the health and quality of life for America’s communities.

In the case of stormwater management, we should consider the native and urban forests, native and non-native landscapes as places to absorb and process rainwater, to offset the negative impacts of building more hard surfaces (rooftops, sidewalks, roadways, parking lots, etc.) which generate more stormwater runoff.  We can look at it at multiple scales as the Conservation Fund notes:

While green infrastructure planning occurs at a broad ‘landscape scale,’ elements of the over-arching network can be found at all scales, from state-wide, to the county, city, and parcel/site scale. Critical elements of the implementation strategy, such as low-impact development practices (LID), conservation developments, green/grey interface, etc., are necessary components to any successful green infrastructure plan, and are frequently found at the site/parcel scale.

Sewer Outfall

Sewer Outfall

Part of the problem then with the current thinking about stimulating the economy and re-building the United States’ infrastructure is that much of the money that is focused on water is NOT focused on protecting the natural landscapes or hydrologic process that sustain clean water at the source, or keep it from becoming a problem like stormwater that we must dispose at our expense.  Unfortunately, it seems that we have a tendency to do exactly what Albert Einstein noted was a bad idea: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Let’s try hard to think differently this time. As we make decisions on whether to build (or improve) the stormsewer for that development just outside of town, why not try some smart site design to save most of the existing vegetation on or adjacent to the site.  Let’s think about restoring or conserving the green infrastructure before rebuilding all of the gray. If the analysis of Low Impact Development by the good folks at EcoNorthwest is correct, it might even save us some green.

Where to put some of that "new" federal infrastructure money

One thing is as certain as death and taxes: whenever the federal government proposes new spending, whether realized or not, there will be a veritable chorus of voices informing the public and elected officials about where and how to allocate that spending. This is certainly the case with the incoming Obama Administration’s proposed “largest investment in infrastructure since the National Highway System.” Groups ranging from American Rivers, Save Our Environment, the American Automobile Association, America 2050, and the National Academy of Sciences have all rolled out talking points to guide the new push to dole out something near $600 billion in proposed spending.

The motivations of these myriad groups varies widely.  Some are quite ideological in bent, others may have their hands out, while others are claiming logic is in their favor.  One group that seems to fall into the last category is American 2050, which is composed of a coalition of regional planners, scholars, and policy-makers.  The groups mission is “to develop a framework for the nation’s future growth that considers trends such as:

  • Rapid population growth and demographic change
  • Global climate change
  • The rise in foreign trade
  • Sprawling and inefficient land use patterns
  • Uneven and inequitable growth within and between regions
  • Infrastructure systems that are reaching capacity
  • The emergence of megaregions” (mapped out here)

As Wired Magazine put it, American 2050 has urged everyone with their hands on the purse strings to slow down, take a deep breath, and do the following:

  1. Fix what’s broken – Before we start dumping money and resources into splashy new  projects, repair what we already have. Fixing decrepit bridges and crumbling roads isn’t as sexy as building a high-speed rail line or water treatment plant, but it must come first.
  2. Phase it in – Just as you can’t run a marathon without training, you can’t spend hundreds of billions of dollars without planning. Although there are many “shovel ready” projects we must tackle, Obama must consider the big picture. Establishing clear goals, setting timelines for reaching them and building capacity before digging in will increase the chance of project success.
  3. Go green – Infrastructure projects that keep us chained to fossil fuels won’t do much good in the long run. Yes, we must fix our roads and bridges, but we also must prioritize initiatives that will protect the environment and push us toward sustainable energy and transportation.
  4. Train the workforce – Creating jobs through infrastructure spending is more difficult than simply handing out shovels. America 2050 calls for a methodical job training program to provide workers with the skills they need to do the job and make sure we get top-notch work out of them.
  5. Count – Developing metrics to measure the effectiveness of completed projects will help ensure smart spending on future projects. This one seems like a no-brainer.

All of these points are good ones from the perspective of this specialized perch on the North Coast of Oregon. There is a point to be made however: what about the rural areas outside of those “megaregions”? Tillamook and Clatsop Counties, as well as the rest of the Oregon coast are struggling to meet infrastructure needs, including crumbling roads, strained sewer systems, aging water treatment facilities and abundant problems managing stormwater runoff and floods.  These counties have felt the sting of declines in timber receips, while at the same time seeing a housing bubble burst as beach homes lag on the real estate market for years. And already these communities were distressed. Check out the new OSU Rural Communities Explorer website for more information on the state of rural (and coastal) Oregon.

While there is no arguing that cities with large numbers of constituents can lay rightful claim to much of the money and projects that will help their sagging economies and sagging infrastructure, denizens of the rural hinterlands around them will likely request a share of the pie, especially as these communities now feed the urban centers with in-migrants, while urbanites use the hinterlands for recreation, food and timber production. So the quandary is thus: can $600 billion be spread broadly enough to raise the fortunes of the cities AND the towns surrounding them? Or will we see a further nourishment of the megaregions while the economic losers in the game will continue to be the periphery? Time and politics will tell.

And by the way, water-focused environmental group American Rivers has put out “A New Agenda for Water” that makes some interesting points, a couple of which I disagree with, but many that seem spot on for any water wonks to consider in the newly appointed ranks of the departments of Interior, Transportation, Commerce, Energy, Agriculture, or the Environmental Protection Agency.  Check it out.