Home & Garden

How C.R.'s new rain garden program can reduce stormwater and save you money

Liz Martin photos/The Gazette

AmeriCorps Land and Water Stewards (from left) Tyler Klostermann, Lily Heinzel, Lauren Beauchamp and Katie Thomas dig a garden bed June 4 in the backyard of Alison Gowans’ Cedar Rapids home. The garden was installed through the City of Cedar Rapids’s Stormwater Best Management Practices cost-share program and partnership with Green Iowa AmeriCorps.
Liz Martin photos/The Gazette AmeriCorps Land and Water Stewards (from left) Tyler Klostermann, Lily Heinzel, Lauren Beauchamp and Katie Thomas dig a garden bed June 4 in the backyard of Alison Gowans’ Cedar Rapids home. The garden was installed through the City of Cedar Rapids’s Stormwater Best Management Practices cost-share program and partnership with Green Iowa AmeriCorps.
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When I heard about a partnership between the City of Cedar Rapids and Green Iowa AmeriCorps to install rain gardens in Cedar Rapids, I jumped at the chance to apply.

I already had a rain barrel, and I’ve always been an advocate of anything that is environmentally friendly. Rain gardens, which are designed to be aesthetically pleasing while helping capture and filter stormwater runoff, have always intrigued me. But I’m far from an expert gardener, so when someone offers to help me with a project like this, I say yes.

The program is helpful on multiple fronts — the native prairie plants in the garden are pollinator friendly and will help remove toxins and sediments from the water they filter, and because flooding happens here — not just from the Cedar River and streams, but up through people’s basements and the storm sewers.

“This is a priority for Cedar Rapids because of both water quality and flooding. We know we have potential for flooding from the river, but we also do from other areas,” said Cara Matteson, stormwater coordinator for the City of Cedar Rapids. “If every resident were to do some sort of water management, there would be less runoff. It’s a chain effect. Every drop counts, we really believe that.”

To encourage residents to install rain gardens and undertake other stormwater management practices, the city has a cost-share program and will reimburse half the cost of a project, up to $2,000. My rain garden supplies cost about $400 and included river rock, pavers, mulch and the plants, all native prairie flowers and grasses.

With the help of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis., I ordered 48 plants for my garden, including milkweed, fox sedge, New England aster, columbine, purple coneflower, Golden Alexander and Ohio spiderwort.

The plants that want the most water should be planted in the center of the garden, with less thirsty plants on the edges. Using native plants, which establish deep roots, not only helps soak up rain water, but helps water quality — the plants’ roots take up pollutants and help keep them from the ground water supply.

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To create the garden, AmeriCorps volunteers marked off a circle about 6 to 8 foot across in my yard, near a downspout. They dug about 6 inches of soil out of the circle, leaving a basin in the middle of the yard, surrounded by a border of pavers.

More pavers marked a trench to my downspout, which they then dug and filled with river rocks. The idea is that water running off my roof would end up in the rain garden instead of running onto the sidewalk, driveway and into the sewers. Along with roof runoff, sump pumps can be diverted into rain gardens.

This is the third year for the cost share, but the first for the Green Iowa AmeriCorps partnership. It’s a perfect fit for Green Iowa’s mission — the group was formed in 2009 after the Floods of 2008 to help Iowa communities recovering from the disaster.

The group started with just five rain garden installations this spring, but more than 50 people applied for the program, so it will do a second round in the fall. Applications are closed for the year, but Matteson is hoping the program returns in 2019.

The application process took into consideration the yard’s location and suitability for a rain garden. Rain gardens should ideally be 10 feet from a home’s foundation, and yards should also pass a percolation test, which is taken by measuring how quickly water drains in a 3 foot hole, dug with a clam shell post hole digger.

If water doesn’t drain within 12 to 24 hours, it won’t drain from the rain garden properly, which can lead to a boggy, buggy, moldy mess. There are other tests homeowners can try if they don’t have a post hole digger, including sending soil samples for testing to the local Extension Service office.

Not all the rain gardens installed by AmeriCorps this year went to residential programs. Volunteers also installed one at Mount Mercy University, where Matteson is hopeful it eventually will be included in curriculum.

“We really want to ramp up knowledge of the cost share program,” she said.

The city has two cost share programs. The first, for residential properties, has $25,000 allocated a year for smaller projects, which the city will reimburse 50 percent of project costs, up to $2,000.

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The second program is for commercial projects, and has $250,000 allocated. The city also reimburses half those project costs, but there is no cap on how big projects can be.

“We want to incentivize the big parking lots with that one,” Matteson said.

Both residential and commercial projects are first come, first served while funding remains, and participants must secure approval before beginning the project in order to qualify for reimbursement.

The city’s stormwater fee structure means businesses with more impervious surfaces face bigger fees. However, they can reduce their fees by implementing some of the best practices the city is encouraging with the program. Businesses and buildings like schools or churches might be good candidates for bioswales, which are plantings meant for larger drainage areas such as parking lots.

“It’s a fancy name for a ditch that’s engineered with the right infiltration plants and soils,” Matteson said.

Beyond rain gardens, the program also encourages soil quality restoration, which involves taking deep, aerated plugs from yards, covering the yards with compost and reseeding them.

“The organic matter of the compost has high water-holding capability,” Matteson said. “It’s about having the yards function as they should. A lot of yards are heavy, with compacted soil.”

Get involved

l Learn more about the city’s stormwater management and cost-share programs: Cityofcr.com/stormwater

l Find instructions on how to design and build your own rain garden: Rainscapingiowa.org/en/rainscapes/rain_gardens

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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