Howard County banks on rain gardens to raise awareness of stormwater management

Although he was a German major in college, these days Peter Bulka is shoveling dirt to build rain gardens. His colleague, Dave Gondoun, is planning to study cyber security when he starts classes at Howard Community College this fall.

But whatever they end up doing, both men, and many of the other participants in the Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth program, a Howard County green jobs initiative for local young adults, say they have come to see working to improve the environment as an important goal.

"The program is pretty amazing, because you meet people from different places and you get to learn more about the environment while doing it," said Gondoun, a 20-year-old from Elkridge who is participating in READY for his second summer. "Taking care of the environment is important to me now."

"One thing that's going to be a challenge for Americans fighting climate change is having an informed workforce," said Bulka, a 24-year old from Columbia who is also back for a second year. "We're laying the foundation for that here."

The program reflects a strategy of visibility by Howard County officials, who hope that building prominent watershed restoration projects on public land and in other shared spaces will not only improve the environment but raise awareness and inspire more people to get involved in a stormwater cleanup effort that needs widespread participation to achieve big results.

As part of a multi-state initiative to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, Howard County has been tasked with treating 2,000 acres of previously impervious surface by 2019. With just fractions of an acre improved by each rain garden, it's a daunting job.

In the three years of READY's existence, program participants have built some 100 rain gardens, improving a total of about 5.7 acres of impervious land, according to Howard County stormwater manager Jim Caldwell.

Being visible

There's no silver bullet to reducing the county's untreated stormwater runoff, said Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay READY project manager Don Tsusaki. The rain gardens are just one solution among other necessary projects, some of which, including street bioretentions and stormwater filtering facilities, are already in motion.

"Stormwater runoff is a man-made problem, but now we have to live with it," Tsusaki said. "It's not just a county issue; the community itself also has to activate and participate and work collaboratively with the county and other agencies to figure out how we deal with this thing."

Caldwell said building rain gardens where people will see them is the first step. Each garden is accompanied by a sign explaining its purpose.

"These rain gardens really have two functions: on a small scale, residential basis they're starting to trap more stormwater and clean it up," he said, "and the second thing is that they're bringing more awareness to the community."

Caldwell hopes the landscaping will convince Howard Countians that stormwater management projects are a worthwhile effort, especially those who have been put off by the concept of paying a stormwater fee, which has been ridiculed by critics as a rain tax.

In July 2013, the County Council approved a tiered rate structure that requires apartment residents to pay $15 a year, while single-family homeowners on lots of up to a quarter acre pay $45 and homeowners on lots of more than a quarter acre pay $90. Nonresidential property owners pay an individually tailored fee, based on the amount of impervious surface on their property.

Howard is one of eight other counties who, along with Baltimore City, have been required to collect the fee from residents to go into a dedicated watershed restoration fund, which must be used on projects that will contribute to improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay. In 2013, the county collected nearly $10.4 million from the stormwater utility fee.

A July 2014 report shows that 77 percent of the utility's funds have been budgeted for capital improvements.

"The first people heard about stormwater is there's a fee you've got to pay," Caldwell said. "Now, we're starting to get a chance to say there's a reason for the fee; the fee is trying to correct a problem and here's what you can do to solve it."

The READY program's latest project, a rain garden and conservation landscaping at St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, illustrates that concept. The church is among nonprofits that have opted to have their stormwater fees reduced or eliminated by working with Howard officials to design and construct stormwater filtering devices.

The landscaping, a winding path of smooth, gray rocks surrounded by soil and plants that filter rain water before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay's tributaries, is located right along a driveway leading through the stately campus of stone buildings.

While the county is focused on the "low-hanging fruit" – building stormwater management facilities near schools, on government property and on the properties of nonprofits such as St. John's Episcopal Church – the next step is to move the effort on to private land, which means getting communities and businesses involved.

The county has a reimbursement program for individual citizens, which will pay for 50 percent of the cost of a rain garden built on private property, up to $1,200, Caldwell said. Participants in the reimbursement program will also receive a 20 percent credit on their stormwater utility fee, for as long as the garden is maintained.

Businesses can be reimbursed up to $5,000 for stormwater mitigation projects on their property and can receive a 50 percent credit on their stormwater fee.

"We're trying to seed the knowledge in people that this isn't such a bad deal," he said. "It's like if everyone uses fluorescent bulbs... if everybody does it, it will make a noticeable difference."

County Executive Ken Ulman encouraged residents to join in the effort.

"Cleaning pollution and protecting the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries have been some of the most important goals as county executive," he said. "This year's capital budget contains $16.6 million for bioretention, stream bank restoration and other projects to clean run-off, the highest amount ever. I think the return on this investment is going to be huge."

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