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Earth Day and beyond: WSU research could help rain gardens work effectively

A Washington State University research program in Puyallup will help determine what works and what doesn't in low-impact development aimed at reducing stormwater runoff.

A woman walks a dog by the rain gardens in Ballard.

A woman walks a dog by the rain gardens in Ballard. Rita Hibbard/InvestigateWest

Distributed by InvestigateWest

When you mention Puyallup to most Northwesterners, the city’s fall fair is the image most likely brought to mind. But this suburb of Tacoma is also home to a research center that’s on the leading edge of technology used to cleanup and curb toxic stormwater runoff.

Nationwide, cities and counties are spending billions of dollars trying to reduce the amount of polluted runoff that fouls lakes and bays, floods homes and businesses, and triggers erosion. The rainwater gushes across highways, streets, parking lots, roof tops, lawns, and farms, scooping up oil and grease, pesticides, metals, and other toxic chemicals as it goes.

This spring, Washington State University’s Puyallup Low Impact Development Research Program is launching projects that scientists hope will help slow that flow of water and treat the pollutants.

The WSU researchers are testing “green” solutions for stormwater runoff, including rain gardens and porous pavement. There’s a huge demand for more information about how to maximize the use of these natural strategies.

“Our goal is to help get this stuff on the ground as fast as possible and operating as well as it can,” said Curtis Hinman, director of WSU’s Puyallup program, of the green technologies.

Seattle, Portland, Bremerton, Lacey, and Spokane are among the numerous cities installing natural stormwater solutions, which are also known as low-impact development or LID. For the most part, they’ve performed well, reducing and cleaning up runoff.

But as was recently demonstrated in Seattle when city-built rain gardens in the Ballard neighborhood turned into muddy messes, there’s a pressing need for more data on how these systems work.

The importance of the WSU program “is huge,” said Art Castle, interim executive vice president at the Building Industry Association of Washington, an organization representing the housing industry. “This is probably the best research facility for low-impact development in the country.”

In most cases, research on low-impact development has come from small-scale test sites or actual rain gardens and pavement built in communities and business areas. In the latter, the research depends on the natural conditions — some years are rainy, some are dry — that can’t be repeated. The sites can’t easily be tweaked to test various conditions. The information gathered is greatly limited.

“We will be filling a lot of data gaps in a unique way,” Hinman said.

At the Puyallup campus, a large plot of land is pocked with rows of depressions, roughly 20 feet square at the top, 10 feet square at the bottom. The 16 rain gardens are planted with a variety of grasses and plants. A giant below-ground cistern collects rainwater runoff that pours from the campus pavement. That water is then fed to the rain gardens so that scientists can see which plants grow best, how quickly the water is absorbed, and how well the pollutants are being removed.

Next to that are 20 semi-buried tubs filled with different types of soils that are used the line rain gardens to make them more absorbent. Again, the researchers are testing which work best and how clean is the water that runs off and is not absorbed.

One of the campus parking lots is being used for research as well. There, alternating parking spots are either porous or normal pavement. Some spots will be swept regularly while others will not, in order to test whether dirt and debris on an unswept lot will eventually clog the pervious pavement.

"It may look like a crazy uncle experimenting out in the backyard," said Nate Cormier, senior landscape architect with SvR Design Co., "But what they’ve built is “a landscape that we learn from, and physically change and experiment with."

Cormier’s firm, a Seattle-based leader in natural drainages, helped design the WSU facility. Cormier said the field of low-impact development is largely past the need for pilot projects, but the approach is not yet standard practice. A project like this one can help make that transition to wider acceptance.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 25, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

It will be interesting to see how flexible the Department of Ecology rules are in light of this ongoing research. For example, will DOE accept porous pavement as not impervious rather than trying to retrofit the world to pre 1492 conditions?

sudonim

Posted Mon, Apr 25, 3:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Pullman, yep, there's a great place to study rain soaked soils... Or is it dry land wheat farming that you'll find out there?

Not to dis the scientists at WSU, but really, this contract should have gone to the UW, at least researchers there could have ridden the bus over to Ballard to check out those malarial ditches.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Apr 26, 5:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Government has monopolized stormwater as their cash cow,,,any questions?

salmonjim

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