[All photos by Arianna Rich — pictured: purple love grass plugs awaiting planting]
Spread the Purple Love Grass
Few things provide as much meaning in life as working in service to something you love. It’s no secret that I love working in support of bettering the environment, particularly as it relates to water.
This past weekend, the Jr. League of Lancaster (JLL), an all-women’s organization committed to training and voluntarism, planted the first of what we hope will be many rain gardens in the City of Lancaster. Our first project was at the North Museum on the F&M College Campus in downtown Lancaster, redesigning, expanding, and rebuilding an existing, underperforming rain garden.
Lancaster has a combined sewer system, a CSS, which means that sewage and stormwater all flow through the same pipes. Lancaster’s system, like many city systems built in the 1800’s, is old and undersized for the City’s growing population.
When it rains, particularly when there is a big storm event, the stormwater rushes into the sewage system at a rate that overloads the bacteria that treat (eat) the incoming sewage. The waste water treatment plant simply cannot handle the extra volume of water passing through its pipes so rather than sacrifice the bugs that live off the waste, the City opens the outfalls and allows the combined sewer and stormwater to pass through untreated which is called a combined sewer overflow (CSOs). Before wastewater treatment plants were built, dilution was the solution for “treating” waste. That practice was long ago abandoned do to health hazards.
Lancaster City needs to remove 750,000,000 gallons of rain water annually from its combined sewer system. In order to do so, Lancaster has initiated one of the most innovative and ambitious green infrastructure programs in the country.
The JLL wants to help. JLL contracted with LandStudies, a landscape architecture and stormwater management company to handle the redesign and plant acquisition portions of this project. In addition, project support was provided by the City of Lancaster and the Lancaster County Conservancy. F&M graciously agreed to house the project on F&M property and provided guidance and assistance from their Office of Sustainability from ground preparation to planting recommendations.
Rain gardens are an urban answer to the loss of natural wetlands caused by modern development, a critical piece of the stormwater management puzzle necessary to return our world to balance. Before asphalt, before concrete, before roadways and superhighways, before commercial and residential housing developments, before “impervious surfaces” — areas covered by impenetrable materials that thwart water absorption — before all of that we had wetlands. In the short-term, a rain garden mimics a wetland.
Think of the footprint of your house particularly after a heavy rain. The impervious surfaces — the roof, the driveway, the sidewalk — all block rainwater from being absorbed back into the ground. This can lead to flooding as all the water rushes off to the stormwater drains. The rain garden redirects that water and allows it to temporarily pond on the surface, like a little holding tank where the water can slowly seep back into the ground, helping to reduce flood risks.
When the rain garden is planted with a good mix of native plants they can act like sponges, filtering out pollutants, absorbing nutrients, trapping sediments, purifying the water, and assisting in groundwater recharge. These plants also provide habitat for birds who like to eat insects so there is less need for insecticides. The economic benefits — fishing, forestry, and recreational tourist activities — to downstream water bodies are important (think Chesapeake Bay). In addition, there is the social benefit of a rain garden to the community which comes together to create and care for it. So many sustainable benefits from one little garden!
JLL is in the process of creating a curriculum that will include all that’s needed to build a rain garden in your own backyard. What if you’re a school that wants to build a rain garden on school property or next to the playground? We can help with that, too. We’ll design the educational curriculum, focusing on STEM elements that can logically be incorporated into a rain garden. The package will include the science and technology as well as timelines, budget and permit information, and everything else needed to support the design and build process.
For each project, we would like to have a high school-aged group involved in the design and build stage. Our goal is to increase the interest of students, particularly girls, in STEM fields. Research shows that as early as 6th grade, girls lose interest in STEM subjects resulting in about 12 out of 100 female bachelor students graduating with a STEM major. By providing this hands on educational component, JLL hopes to not only stimulate, but retain these girls’ love of science, technology, engineering and math.
The JLL wants to be part of Lancaster’s new era of sustainability. Want to join us?
We just need a few good women! And yes, men are welcome, too.