Sacred Sponge

June 26, 2018

A few weeks ago, one of my fellow editors here at Forester, Rachel Sim, wrote a terrific blog post about death—or rather, about some of the stormwater and groundwater issues particular to cemeteries. If you’ve never given much thought to how coffin varnish and embalming fluid might affect the water supply, it’s definitely worth a read.

Cemeteries need not be viewed as water-quality threats, however, and one in particular is getting lots of attention lately for helping to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. The Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, DC, is getting a makeover, incorporating green infrastructure to infiltrate runoff not only from its own grounds but also from nearby neighborhoods.

You might think a cemetery is already pretty green, but about 10 acres of the 85-acre property had been impervious, covered by roads and walkways. Working with the Nature Conservancy, Mount Olivet’s owner, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, has removed about 18,000 square feet of impervious surface by narrowing paved roads and removing some little-used access roads entirely. In the process, the archdiocese has reduced its stormwater fees—which had run as high as $200,000 a year—and has even generated stormwater credits. The sale of those credits through the DC Department of Energy and Environment’s stormwater retention credit program is paying for the work. This article includes more detail about the funding.

The cemetery’s runoff is being carefully directed to newly planted rain gardens and bioretention cells, which will also help filter pollutants. None of the graves will be disturbed.

One problem with using green infrastructure to reduce runoff in a developed area is that, sometime after it’s been installed and included in the overall runoff reduction plan, a developer can buy up the land and build on it, putting parking lots or roofs over what was once a bioswale. It’s hard to keep track of which areas are still in play. That won’t be the case here, because the 160-year-old cemetery won’t be sold or developed.

“This marks the first time [the Nature Conservancy] has partnered with the Catholic Church,” this article notes. “It’s also likely marks the first time that a man of the cloth—in this event, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, DC—has blessed an urban stormwater retention project.”

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.