Household Stormwater Part III
Water conservation, rain gardens, and rain barrels.
Water conservation is a big part of improving your impact on the stormwater system, and thus local water quality. Of course, making an effort to conserve water also pays off when the water bill arrives. Conserving water around your home, yard and garden will help decrease stormwater runoff pollution, and help keep Lake Superior clean.
Home & Away
At home, pay attention to the water efficiency of your appliances, such as washing machines and dishwashers. WaterSense labeled products, similar to the EnergyStar rating, will help you determine how water-efficient they are. Low-flow shower heads, faucets and toilets are also good choices. If you're not in the market for new appliances or fixtures, you can still save water. Repair leaks in pipes, faucets and pumps in a timely manner, and avoid letting faucets run if they're not immediately needed.
It's also a great idea to get familiar with your neighborhood's stormwater systems. Know where your storm drains, outflows and stormwater runoff ponds are and what they're supposed to do. For instance, if it hasn't rained in 72 hours and you hear or see water running in the storm drains, that would be a sign of wastewater or stormwater pollution happening in the neighborhood.
In outflows and stormwater ponds, warning signs of pollution also may be seen. If you see a buildup of trash or debris, algae blooms that can signal bacteria, sediment buildup or unusual soil erosion, or contaminants like soap or oil in the water, call your municipal department in charge of stormwater. Another tip that your local stormwater workers will appreciate you following: Don't feed geese, ducks or other animals you see frequenting your stormwater ponds. They're often understandably attracted to ponds, but their waste can become an additional pollution problem if they are encouraged to stay in an area by being fed there.
In Marquette, the place to contact about stormwater problems is the city's Public Works and Utilities department.
Maybe your grandparents had one of these, but they've become less common in many households. The idea is one well worth re-adopting, however. Rain barrels or cisterns sit below your downspouts or gutters and collect rainwater during storms. The water then can be used when you need it, for watering your lawn or garden, washing your car or your dog, cleaning outside tools or around the house, or other graywater uses. (Drinking or cooking with rainwater isn't a good idea, though.)
It's pretty much a win-win all the way around; you save on water, and the stormwater system saves on runoff. It's even better for your garden plants to water from a rain barrel, because the untreated water does have natural nutrients that help you avoid using fertilizers, and doesn't have additives like chlorine and fluoride that are in tap water. (Those do help keep drinking water healthy and safe for people, who are not plants.)
If you have noticeable stormwater runoff in your yard or on your property, a rain garden might be the way to go. It's more time- and planning-intensive than some options, but the payoff is substantial in terms of keeping your stormwater impact minimal.
Instead of allowing stormwater to run from your downspouts to the street, straight into the storm drains, think about the possibility of disconnecting the downspout and creating a rain garden in the area below. It'll absorb stormwater runoff in the most natural way possible, and let it filter through the ground slowly and return to your ecosystem's water cycle.
Building a rain garden starts with figuring out the right location -- which is anywhere water runs off your roofs or paved areas. Check the soil type in the area so you can determine what plants might do well in it. Then, plot out the size of the rain garden you'll need, and figure a number of plants and shrubs that will work in that area. Trees aren't often used unless your rain garden is a good distance from any building, because their roots can work into foundations over time. But, those with single taproots instead of complex root systems can be good choices.
Choosing plants for a rain garden might prove a challenge to any gardener, but hey, that's why it's fun. In general, native plants are going to be the best because they'll have better root systems and will be more adapted to your climate and weather. That will make their water usage more effective, and keep you from having to water the rain garden when it doesn't rain. Consider several things; plants on the low end of any slope or depression in the area will need to tolerate very wet soil conditions, even standing water, but also tolerate periods of dryness. Plants in the middle areas of a rain garden need average water tolerance, and those on the edges need to be able to tolerate dryness the best. (There's a great list of U.P. native plants to consider here.)
On a practical note, many people who create rain gardens do so with a combination of seed and young plants or seedlings. That's more cost-effective than full-grown plants, although it may take a season or so before your rain garden is working properly. It may not need to be said, but perennial plants are the best option, to keep you from re-planting each year.
After you've got your rain garden designed and the plants are ready, dig up the area and loosen the soil for planting. If your soil is very poor, adding compost or other amendments at this stage can help your plants get started. Plant according to the needs of the plants you chose, and then comes a very important step: mulching. At least two inches of double-shredded bark will help the water absorb into the ground slowly, and be sure to choose a natural mulch without dyes or chemical processing, as that will just end up in the water too. Many rain gardens also use loose rock in areas around the plants, to encourage further water retention and slower runoff. More resources on rain gardens can be found here from the Groundwater Foundation.