Thirsty Ground

Rain gardens at the Grand Rapids treatment plant help capture and filter more than 12 million gallons a year, helping to curtail runoff pollution
Thirsty Ground

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The mention of rain gardens may conjure up an image of little areas of shrubs and flowers that mitigate small amounts of rainwater runoff. But not at the wastewater treatment plant in the City of Grand Rapids, Mich.

This 90 mgd (design) activated sludge plant with average daily flow of 49 mgd is home to five large “industrial-strength” rain gardens that process more than 12 million gallons of rainwater each year that otherwise would flow to the nearby Grand River.

“To my knowledge, our River of Dreams rain garden is the largest landscaped garden in this area of the state,” says plant Environmental Services Department (ESD) chemist Sandy Buchner. “It’s our second rain garden and measures 75 by 75 feet. It contains 29 different plant species native to Michigan.” It serves as a demonstration garden to help educate the community about stormwater management.

 

Out of frustration

The idea to plant a rain garden grew from the frustration of plant workers who couldn’t properly mow and maintain an area near the maintenance building. “It was always wet and mushy, not to mention the mosquitoes,” Buchner says.

So the plant partnered with the Western Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), which provided expertise and experience on a 25- by 35-foot rain garden. “That was in 2002 and our first rain garden,” says Buchner. “We call it River of Stars.”

A project in 2008 to remove some large primary settling tanks inspired the creation of the River of Dreams garden.

“The plant considered installing a system of pipes and pumps to collect the runoff from the old tank site, but a rain garden proved to be more cost effective and almost maintenance free,” Buchner says. It was also more in tune with the mission of the ESD to take a lead within the community in protecting the environment.

A combination of native perennials like black-eyed Susans and prairie grasses were selected to ensure that something is in bloom spring through fall. The most unusual plant is the prickly pear cactus — “Yep! We even have cactus here in western Michigan,” Buchner says. To hold down costs, year-old plugs were planted, using volunteers from the plant, college students, and interested citizens. “Lots of volunteers contributed to planting the gardens,” she says.

 

A green leader

The newest garden, called River of Two Cities, handles about two acres of runoff from a LEED-certified biosolids facility built in 2009 in partnership with the neighboring City of Wyoming. Buchner says the River of Two Cities garden was too big for conventional planting and landscaping, so parts have been hydro-seeded with a native plant-mix and excavated with swales to serve as short-term retention basins.

“It has more of a prairie grass appearance, but it won’t need to be mowed,” she says. “And mosquitoes are never a problem in a properly designed garden because the drainage time through the garden is 24 hours or less, and it takes several days in standing water for mosquitoes to hatch.”

Buchner’s enthusiasm and pride show when she talks about the rain gardens and the environment. “Most people don’t know it, but Grand Rapids is a leader in green infrastructure,” she says. “We have more LEED-certified buildings per capita than anywhere else in the nation.”

She is particularly proud that the plant provides an area for WMEAC to locate a nursery to grow native plants that end up at local schools and other rain gardens throughout the city. “Many schools would not have been able to have a rain garden project if WMEAC would not have provided the plants grown at this nursery,” says Buchner.

“The gardens help with the rainwater runoff problems. But they also create a natural habitat for wildlife,” she says. “The rain gardens also serve as a resting spot for employees to take in the peace and quiet during breaks.”



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