Cincy Science: New tool helps local researchers manage storm water for greener gardens and more

CINCINNATI - Anyone looking at a brown lawn in summer knows the value of a good soaking rain. However, too much rain can be just as detrimental to the environment as not enough.

In order to help residents and businesses better manage rainfall, the Environmental Protection Agency has developed a Storm Water Calculator. The tool allows users to input data about their homes or businesses and design plans to reclaim storm water using rain gardens, rain barrels, permeable pavement and other resources.

EPA urban watershed branch chief Michelle Simon said the agency has conducted research on green infrastructure at the Andrew W. Breidenbach Environmental Research Center in Clifton. Current projects include rain gardens in St. Francis Court Apartments and permeable pavement at Cincinnati State.

Q & A with Michelle Simon, chief of the Cincinnati EPA's Urban Watershed Branch.

1. Why is managing storm water so important?

I want to encourage people to think of water as a precious resource. I think people are becoming more aware. They’re very aware in the west about reclaiming water and getting enough water for their drinking water needs. I think people in this area are less aware, but I still think we have the same problem of having storm water carry contamination to our surface water bodies and we don’t want it. We’re very lucky to have the Great Lakes and the Ohio River so close, but we still need to manage our storm water. Even cities like Atlanta have had trouble with water and I’m sure everybody knows about the drought in California and how dangerous that has become.

2. What challenges do we face with storm water locally?

Here in Cincinnati we have a combined sewer, so when storm water gets to be a higher amount than the Cincinnati Metropolitan Sewer District can handle, it will overflow. You then have sewage overflowing into streams, rivers and lakes with a lot of bacteria and contaminants like fertilizers and pesticides that cause ecological damage for these water bodies. Storm water is one of the leading contributors to surface water pollution in country. The EPA and the MSD are working hard to reduce the amount of storm water overflow to reduce the amount of contamination.

3. How vital is it to the environment that we collect storm water?

It’s very important. I’m sure that you’ve gone past someone’s house and they’re watering in the middle of the day. A lot of the water will evaporate, so it would make more sense to water your lawn in the summer at night. And if you can use landscaping that doesn’t require a lot of water, unlike a lawn, you’d need to water less. Use indigenous plants and landscape your property so you have a little bit of lawn and a lot of natural shade. Route the water on your property so you don’t have to artificially water various different areas. You don’t want someone watering their lawn and having a lot of runoff coming off of it. It’s a waste of water and it introduces contamination to the environment. You also don’t want to over-fertilize and use a lot of pesticides and then water, because that will just get flushed into the storm water.

4. I know we have some lakes that have been horribly affected by algae in Ohio. Is that due to runoff from storm water?

Yes, like Grand St. Mary’s Lake and Lake Harsha in East Fork State Park, there are various lakes that were made to be drinking water reservoirs. Pesticides and fertilizers from either agriculture or residential sources gets into these lakes, causes algal bloom so the oxygen content gets lower and the fish suffer. So we definitely have that problem here.

5. Can these lakes be cleaned and made usable again?

Yes they can. We just need to manage how much fertilizer and pesticides we put on our fields and lawns. We can put in things like wetlands that can act as filters to prevent the contamination from getting into the reservoir. We’re working hard with the Lake Harsha people and the Army Corp of Engineers to manage Lake Harsha so we won’t have algal bloom. You’ve probably also gone to a reservoir at various times and seen a health advisory because there’s either toxic algae or a bunch of bacteria and people aren’t able to swim. So we think that by just managing the land around the reservoir we can prevent these types of incidents from occurring.

6. How user-friendly is the Storm Water Calculator?

I think it’s very user friendly. Once you download it, you input your address and it kind of takes you through the process. It helps you identify your soil, your type of infiltration and your drainage. It can help you size your rain gardens and help you calculate how much it would reduce your runoff. We find it very easy to use and we encourage the public to give it a try.

7. What data is important to calculate with storm water?

You have rainfall. Some of it will infiltrate into the ground, some evaporate and transfer back into the air, and some of it will run off. Obviously, if you have a heavy rain of long duration, you’re going to have more runoff than if you have a light rain of short duration. So those are the kinds of data that we collect, measure and use for our mathematical model to calculate runoff.

The urban environment has a lot of impermeable surfaces. The water will run off streets, roofs and highways. If there were no manmade structures there it would infiltrate into the ground. So the built environment is different from the natural environment. And the way that Cincinnati has traditionally handled storm water is it falls onto the streets and runs into the sewer and it goes through pipes and that’s called gray infrastructure. Things like permeable pavement, rain gardens and rain barrels are a way to collect water and not have too much of it run off. And you want to size these structures so that they can handle the amount of rain that falls on your impermeable environment.

8. Are there other options for homeowners besides rain gardens and rain barrels to collect runoff?

You can use a soaker instead of a typical way to water your garden. Soak it so it soaks in and you don’t have a lot of runoff with the rain barrels. You want to put your rain garden in a natural divot so that water will drain into it and you won’t have to purchase water in order to keep your rain garden full. There are a number of ways a homeowner can use storm water that falls on his or her property directly. And they’re not expensive, it’s just a matter of practices.

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