Rain barrels, rain gardens prevent stormwater runoff

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published May 15, 2019

 One way to prevent stormwater runoff is to install a rain barrel to collect water as it rushes off a roof and save it for future use watering plants.

One way to prevent stormwater runoff is to install a rain barrel to collect water as it rushes off a roof and save it for future use watering plants.

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METRO DETROIT — This year’s wet spring is making it hard to discount the effects of rain on local yards and gardens.

For those looking out on a backyard that now includes more ponds than puddles, however, there is hope. Diverting the rain into a rain barrel for future use or establishing a rain garden to attract and filter the stormwater are great ways to eliminate backyard flooding and keep storm sewers from overflowing.

“Almost every community is having issues with stormwater, so the more stormwater we can divert off of the roads is that much less that’s going into the rivers and streams that we have to clean before we can use for our drinking water,” said Terry Gibb, senior extension educator in natural resources and government public policy for the Macomb County Michigan State University Extension.

One way to prevent stormwater runoff is to install a rain barrel to collect water as it rushes off a roof and save it for future use watering the garden or lawn.

The St. Clair Shores Waterfront Environmental Committee offers rain barrels for sale through the city of St. Clair Shores that come with everything a homeowner needs to attach the barrel to the downspout of a house, and a spigot to get the water out of the barrel.

“You need a couple bricks or something to bring it up a foot and a half or higher off the ground, because it empties out of gravity,” said Joe St. John, a member of the St. Clair Shores Waterfront Environmental Committee.

The $53 barrel is available in a variety of colors, but St. John said that it is a great water conservation tool.

There are plenty of organizations and sources from which to get rain barrels, said Michelle Serreyn, of Detroit, a member of the St. Clair Shores Yardeners. Installing one alleviates the load on the storm sewer system and keeps dirt and toxins from running off the street and into lakes, rivers and streams.

She said that barrels can be linked so that even more water can be retained, and then residents have “this great, free source of water.”

Some communities, including the city of Detroit, have a fee attached to impermeable surfaces, so installing a rain barrel can save money in the long run.

“If we can demonstrate that we’re keeping water off those impermeable surfaces, sometimes we can get a credit on our water bill,” Serreyn said.

For those concerned about mosquitoes laying their eggs in the standing water, Serreyn said that a mosquito dunk can be put into the water that releases a naturally occurring microbe that kills mosquito larvae and leaves the water safe to be used for gardening and grass, although it is not drinkable by humans or animals.

Rain barrels should also include a screening mechanism to keep leaves and other debris out. Serreyn said that residents can then simply dunk a watering can in the top, use gravity to let the water out through a spigot or install a pump.

“It’s a really nice thing to do,” she said. “My grandparents used to (have a rain barrel), and somehow the generation between got away from all that. Now we’re going back to it because we’re realizing it was a good (idea).”

Another option to collect and control stormwater to keep it from becoming runoff is a rain garden.

Rain gardens “recharge” stormwater by passing it through filtration in the ground where microbes can eliminate toxins.

“The rain garden, itself, is planted with ... native plants that have deep, penetrating root systems. These plants, the roots will break up the soil and make it more permeable, make it more like a sponge,” Serreyn said.

The gardens can be tailored to be hospitable for pollinators and butterflies, and a lot of the plants that work well in rain gardens come from wetland areas, so they are used to periods of being inundated with water and then drying out.

The first year is the most important to make sure that the plants are well-watered, so they can become established.

“Then they sort of take off on their own,” Serreyn explained.

Done correctly, Gibb said that a rain garden can be beautiful, colorful and also reduce the amount of grass that needs to be cut each week. Some examples of plants that do well in rain gardens are swamp milkweed, blue flag iris, sand coreopsis, beardtongue and coneflower.

“A lot of people do rain gardens because they end up with standing water. Over here in Macomb County, we are a former lake bed, so we have a lot of clay in our soil,” Gibb said. “Clay is not impervious, but pretty impervious. (Water) stands for a long time before it soaks in.”

That being said, Gibb explained that homeowners can’t just rip out the grass and throw in some plants and expect a rain garden to emerge.

Choosing a location for the garden is the first step: Although there may be a very low spot in the yard, locating the rain garden just slightly above that point is best, “so (water is) going to hit the rain garden before it hits that really low spot. That way, your whole yard is going to stay dry,” Gibb said.

The soil in a rain garden should be a mix of compost, topsoil and masonry sand to create “pore space” for the water to filter through.

“You want the water to go in there, but you want the water to all be infiltrated within 48 hours,” Gibb said. “You’re not going to water this rain garden, so your plants have got to be able to tolerate high water at times, but also need little water.”

Rain gardens should be established away from the home to protect the house’s foundation, although the building’s downspouts can be directed into the garden.

“My thing is getting the native plants out there and getting people to use and appreciate them,” Serreyn said. “They’ve got so many benefits.”

The Yardeners of St. Clair Shores will host a native plant sale 9 a.m.-noon June 8 at the Selinsky-Green Farmhouse Museum, behind the St. Clair Shores Public Library, 22500 E. 11 Mile Road. Plants cost $2.50 each or five plants for $10. To preorder plants before May 24, visit the Yardeners of St. Clair Shores on Facebook for more information.