Rain With Reason

Aug. 5, 2010

About the author: Caitlin Cunningham is managing editor of Storm Water Solutions. Cunningham can be reached at 847.391.1025 or by e-mail at [email protected].

Bins and public programs dedicated to can, bottle and paper recycling have become par for the course. Soon storm water, generally regarded as a waste product, may join their ranks. Project teams and communities increasingly are putting rainfall and runoff to good use, and they are publicizing the benefits.

The following cases depict pioneering groups—one an institution of higher learning, the other Missouri’s third-largest city—handling storm water as a resource.

Site Case Study:
Educational Efficiency

Portland Community College’s (PCC) new Willow Creek Center is an educational resource and training site for students and job seekers in Washington County, Ore. Its amenities include classrooms, computer labs, multipurpose meeting space and an Oregon Employment Department office. A recipient of top-honors Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, the site also serves as a living classroom for visitors by promoting its “green” processes, including a prominent showcase of rainwater reuse.

Funded by a 2008 college bond measure and $7.5 million in matching grants from the state, construction of Willow Creek Center began in July 2008. The project team completed work later the following year, the final result being a uniquely water-efficient three-story, 100,000-sq-ft building.

Rainwater from the facility’s roof drains directly to a 15,000-gal cistern that sits beneath the main entrance. On its way to the cistern, the water is low-level filtered by a mechanical sediment trap. Leaving the cistern, the water is pumped into the building via a filtration and treatment system, then stored in an 800-gal tank. The nonpotable water in the storage tank is used for toilet and urinal flushing.

An overflow drain sends any excess cistern water to a bioswale surrounding the building. If the cistern runs dry—during summer or a long drought period, for example—the municipal water supply is tapped until the system is replenished.

“Rainwater reuse is a major contributor to the overall water savings of the building,” said Steven Rupert, AIA, LEED AP, associate with GBD Architects, the project’s primary design consultant. “The system is projected to save approximately 180,000 gal of water per year.”

Further supporting PCC’s storm water friendliness is its outdoor permeable pavers and bioswale check dams, which naturally filter storm water that runs off other surfaces, including sidewalks and a nearby transit center.

Inside, Willow Creek Center visitors will find pint-flush urinals, dual-flush toilets and low-flow faucets and showers. LEED calculations estimate that these fixtures will make the facility 75% more water efficient compared to their standard counterparts, Rupert said.

“Some of the things we have done here have been done before, but it is important to have these systems become more standard, or just part of the way we do business,” Rupert said. “There is room to push the envelope on bleeding-edge systems, but the big savers need to become standard.”

The building’s creators wanted to share its green features, which also include rooftop solar panels and recycled construction materials, with the public. Buoy tubes in the lobby measure and advertise the building’s water collection and usage, while a complementary touchscreen displays live energy consumption data.

Willow Creek Center’s conscientious construction benefits not only the environment but also PCC. “The college has lowered its impact on potable water use throughout the year and can physically see how much water it goes through by monitoring the height of the buoy poles at the main entry plaza,” said Scott Work, senior project manager with Skanska USA Building. “It has also lessened the amount of storm water that is dumped into city drains while addressing sedimentation and erosion concerns in its vicinity.”

This project’s success and high marks make it an excellent aquatic model for other groups planning new construction. “It might be easy to say that there is sufficient capacity of domestic water from the central utility and low cost for that water today, but that would be shortsighted,” Rupert said. “One must look at the bigger picture of reducing the load of not only domestic supply but storm water catchment for the long term. All future development should attempt to tread as lightly as possible on our environment.”

Community Case Study:
Giving Barrels a Boost

Under its Phase I MS4 permit, the city of Springfield, Mo., encourages its approximately 155,000 residents to adopt a more water-friendly lifestyle—one that incorporates the use of rain barrels, for example. Local nonprofit watershed group the James River Basin Partnership (JRBP) also considers rain barrels an important tool for protecting and improving area water quality, and supports the city’s education efforts. Early on in their outreach partnership, the city and JRBP came to an important realization: In order to bring their community to use rain barrels, they needed, literally, to bring rain barrels to their community.

In January 2007, JRBP began to bulk-purchase rain barrels and sell them at a reasonable price to residents, with all income supporting the work of JRBP. Five entities with related interests—the Storm Water Services, Sanitary Services and Solid Waste divisions of the City of Springfield Public Works Department, as well as City Utilities of Springfield and Greene County Resource Management—jointly established a deal-sweetening rebate fund. Residents of Greene County now are eligible for an instant rebate of $25 on rain barrel purchases (up to four per household).

“The rebate partners have been an integral part in the ease of launching the program,” said Tiffany Frey, project manager for JRBP. “Offering a rebate created an instant demand, allowing us to be able to ramp up the program and at that point partner with retail outlets as well.”

Rain barrel sales began at the community event level, and now JRBP has partnered with area retailers, including a lawn and garden center and a charity-run resale shop. The city and JRBP collaborate to promote the program via news releases, presentations, signage and a televised public service announcement, for example.

“I think at first we were unsure if the initial 100 barrels would sell,” said Carrie Lamb, storm water technician for Springfield’s Storm Water Services Div. “We’ve now sold over 900 barrels and counting since the program began.”

The rebate program offers buyers two options: a ready-made barrel and a barrel kit. With the ready-made barrel, residents need only cut a downspout and place the barrel underneath. It is available in two colors and, according to Frey, tends to be deemed the most aesthetically appealing. The barrel kit requires some assembly, ultimately forming a two-barrel closed system connected to a downspout.

“We haven’t sat down and quantified the benefits, but the runoff reduction and water conservation achieved is certainly a benefit to the entire community,” Lamb said, noting that the barrels have provided residents a free source of water for nonpotable use and reduced demand on public water supplies and private wells.

“Because of the visibility of the program, a large portion of the community has become more in tune to the benefits of collecting rainwater and the negative impacts of storm water,” Frey said. “When the program first began in 2007, by far the most popular question was, ‘What is a rain barrel?’ Now the most popular question is, ‘Where can I get one?’”

Both the city of Springfield and JRBP credit the partnership as the key to their success. Lamb suggests coordinating with local groups—watershed, environmental, governmental, etc.—to implement or improve a municipal rain barrel program, and Frey cited cooperation with local retailers as the reason JRBP can promote rain barrels seven days a week during business hours.

Partnerships will continue to play a pivotal role in the Springfield area. The city and JRBP are looking to obtain grant funding with which they can fund large-scale rainwater harvesting projects in conjunction with local businesses.

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About the Author

Caitlin Cunningham