By Deb Markowitz
After a summer of nearly constant outdoor activity, I love the rainy days of fall. The rain gives me an excuse to get to those projects I put off, and to enjoy a good book by the fire. And all Vermonters depend on rainwater to replenish the lakes, streams and underground aquifers that feed our community water systems and wells.
Although we welcome the wet weather, the rain also brings challenges that come with stormwater runoff. Have you ever noticed a stream of water running down the road while it’s raining? Since coming to work for the Agency of Natural Resources, I’ve begun to notice the places in my own community where stormwater runoff is a problem. When I see this, I find myself wondering what’s in that water, and how it’s impacting the river, stream or lake it’s headed for.
As water washes over paved or otherwise “impervious” surfaces, it carries with it whatever else is in its path. This often includes dirt that contains nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, chemicals from motor vehicles, salt, sand and silt, and garbage that has been discarded improperly. Not surprisingly, one of the most significant causes of pollution in our rivers and lakes is stormwater runoff. Traditional engineered approaches to clean stormwater before it reaches our waterways have been challenging and costly to implement. For that reason the Agency of Natural Resources has kicked off a project to promote and implement innovative, green infrastructure approaches to stormwater management.
Green infrastructure are systems that mimic natural processes that reduce the amount and slow down the flow of stormwater so that it can seep into the ground, rather than run off into ditches and brooks that will ultimately wash pollution into our rivers, lakes and ponds. Green infrastructure practices include changing how we put in curbs so that water washes into green spaces rather than keeping it on pavement, putting in rain gardens (green spaces designed to catch water with native water-loving plants), porous pavements, green roofs, trees and planters designed to catch and hold water during storm events and rain water harvesting (for example, rain barrels).
When we use green infrastructure techniques to manage stormwater and reduce water pollution, we see many additional benefits to the environment and to our communities. Green infrastructure helps prevent flooding and flood damage, it can help us conserve energy by reducing the urban heat effect and can improve air quality by increasing the number of plants and trees that absorb carbon dioxide. It also improves the quality of life in our urban and suburban communities by adding green space for recreation and urban agriculture.
Vermont’s Green Infrastructure Initiative began with an executive order signed this past summer. That directive requires all state agencies to use green infrastructure practices to manage stormwater runoff to minimize pollution on state land, and directs the Agency of Natural Resources to convene an interagency group to implement this goal. The first meeting of this group will be held later this month. In addition, the agency received a quarter million dollar U.S. Forest Service grant which will be used to encourage municipalities to implement green infrastructure practices by offering technical and financial help.
To learn more about how you can use green infrastructure practices in your home or community, visit www.vtwaterquality.org/stormwater/htm/sw_green_infrastructure.htm. Next summer, install a rain garden or rain barrel at your home and reduce the amount of stormwater runoff leaving your property. Together, we can protect and preserve our natural resources for this and future generations.
Deb Markowitz is the secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources.