Rooftop Plantings, Storm Drain Painting and Residential Rain Barrels Help Control Runoff in Richmond

Rooftop planting, storm drain painting and residential rain barrels spotlight initiatives to control runoff in Richmond.

Rooftop Plantings, Storm Drain Painting and Residential Rain Barrels Help Control Runoff in Richmond

A winter view of the 2,400-square-foot green roof on the wastewater treatment plant’s UV disinfection building.

The green roofs on two buildings at the Richmond wastewater treatment plant are an important part of the city’s water quality improvement efforts.

But so are the rain barrels in many residents’ backyards and the professionally painted storm drains on numerous city streets, says Clair Watson, utility operations superintendent in Richmond, Virginia’s capital.

The green roofs are of particular interest to Watson since he is responsible for the 75 mgd advanced treatment plant. “My main focus is to make sure the plant runs like it’s supposed to,” Watson says. “Richmond is a combined sewer system, so the rain barrels and rain gardens and other stormwater management controls are handled by our stormwater division.”

Native plantings

A 6,000-square-foot green roof installed in 2005 on the effluent filtration building was the first at the plant. It joined green roofs on several other public and private buildings, added in response to city initiatives to improve water quality and sustainability. The city has a Phase II municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permit that requires management of stormwater runoff.

A 2,400-square-foot green roof was installed in 2012 on the UV disinfection building as part of a recently completed $120 million nutrient removal upgrade project. Each green roof is a 4-inch-deep modular system with indigenous flowering plants, such as sedum, euphorbia and alliums. On the filtration building, an L-shaped walkway made of 3-by-6-foot sections of high-density polyethylene sheets provides a pathway and platform to care for the plants. On the disinfection building, hinged skylights and removable vents provide roof access.

“We’ve had a good response and positive feedback about our green roofs and plant upgrade,” Watson says. The plant received a 2017 Environmental Performance Award for the upgrade from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

Creative collectors

The stormwater utility’s rain barrel program, started in 2009, has placed nearly 200 of the barrels at citizens’ homes. Build a Barrel – Save the Bay was the theme when Gay Stokes, outreach coordinator, started visiting elementary and middle school science and art classrooms to promote environmental awareness. There she introduced a rain barrel painting contest that offered an in-class prize.

After Stokes’ presentation about the water cycle, pollution causes, and conservation measures, the students paint a 55-gallon barrel in a way that aligns with the year’s contest theme. Photos of the barrels are then posted on a website where residents can vote for the most creative job of displaying the themed message. The painted barrels are donated to residents who apply to have a barrel installed at their homes.

Along with Richmond Department of Public Utilities team members, volunteers with the nonprofit James River Association deliver and install the barrels after fitting them with an overflow valve and a hose bib. The local Coca-Cola bottler donates used barrels as raw material for the contest; they are stored at the wastewater treatment plant until Stokes delivers them to the classrooms.

“It’s a really good program for the city,” Stokes says. “Not only do citizens get a rain barrel installed, but they get a credit on their water bill.”

Street art

A separate contest with painting storm-drain art was created in 2015 by Jonet Prevost-White, MS4 operations manager. Each spring, a call for artists is issued online. Respondents submit photos and sketches of their ideas, again revolving around a theme. Several come from book illustrators, muralists and other experienced artists.

Storm drains for painting are chosen in highly populated areas. The Stormwater Utility Operations and Maintenance group prepares each 8-by-3-foot “artist’s canvas” by cleaning and priming the concrete surface. When the artists finish their paintings, volunteers apply a sealer. Each artist gets a $500 stipend.

“Some of the artwork is truly amazing,” Prevost-White says. “We even received a Media Award for our outreach from the NACWA.” A stormwater utility booklet describes how other localities can create a storm drain art program. Prevost-White often gets phone calls from around the country inquiring about the program.


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