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Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

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This July Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough new storm-water regulations. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (Richmond) wants to demonstrate best practices that save the bay – and look really good doing it.

About a decade ago the leadership of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, an institution known mainly for its formal gardens and conservatory of exotic tropical plants, began re-defining its mission. The new vision called for showcasing how Richmonders and Virginians might address endemic environmental problems such as invasive species and pollution caused by storm water run-off. It was a hard sell at the time, and the 2007-2008 recession dried up traditional sources of philanthropic funding. For years the $9 million project stalled.

But the economy has improved, donations have picked up and the “Streams of Stewardship” vision couldn’t be more timely. The plan calls for reclaiming a stream running through the garden’s 80-acre property, replacing turf lawns with native meadow grasses and using rain gardens to reduce parking-lot run-off – exactly the kinds of things that Virginians will have to do to meet strict new water standards designed to clean up streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

Come July Virginia localities will have to get serious about reducing nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment borne by storm water run-off.  Localities will have 15 years to meet tough state-federal goals for the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of those pollutants detected in their waterways – achieve 5% reduction in the first five years, another 35% reduction in the second five years, and the final 60% reduction in the third five years. Nobody knows for sure how much it will cost or where the money will come from.

The relatively easy part will be implementing tighter regulations for new development. “The new standards are very stringent but well vetted, accepted by the developer community,” says Chris Pomeroy, chief counsel for the Virginia Association of Storm Water Agencies. As long as developers know the costs of new Best Management Practices up-front they can incorporate them into their business plans. “There’s peace in the valley on that subject now.”

The hard part, says Pomeroy, will be fixing old development. “It’s cheaper to build it right in the first place. It’ll cost something to do new development but the corrective action will cost far more.” The state Senate Finance Committee estimated that retrofitting the state could cost $15 billion. But even that is little more than a wild guess.

If Virginians are going to spend billions of dollars on retrofits, they might as well make sure the end result looks good. Lewis Ginter President Frank Robinson wants the botanical garden to be a living demonstration of the positive possibilities. With a little extra attention to detail, he says, storm-water

remediation projects can become beautiful community assets.

In the 1990s and 2000s Lewis Ginter completed a series of improvements – two man-made ponds, a 1.5-acre man-made wetland and retrofitting building roofs to harvest and recycle two million gallons of rainwater annually. Not only did these investments help control water run-off, they made the facility water-independent by using rainwater to irrigate the grounds rather than expensive treated municipal water. By saving the need to purchase 500,000 gallons of  year from Henrico County, those investments offered an attractive Return on Investment.

The next step is to re-work the formal lawn near the entrance and west of the conservatory. Ornamental lawns always will have a place in Lewis Ginter’s formal gardens, explains Robinson, but maintaining vast swaths of turf is an outmoded idea inspired by 18th-century European landscaping models no longer appropriate for Virginia. Lawns of close-cropped green grass are unknown in the natural world and they can be maintained only through the expensive application of fertilizers. Grass lawns absorb little rainwater. The soil is typically compacted and the grass itself has little vegetative mass to hold the water. Rain just runs off horizontally, carrying the chemicals into the watershed where they feed the algae blooms that rob the water of life-giving oxygen.

Industrial discharges are tightly regulated and farmers are getting savvy about managing their fields, says Robinson. Lawns are the last great frontier of cleaning the Chesapeake Bay. The lawn of any individual homeowner seems small but multiply that size by a million suburban houses and the numbers get big. “There is more acreage in lawn in this state than any crop. … If it were a corporation flushing chemicals through their manufacturing plant, we’d be up in arms.”

The plan is to replace several acres of turf with native grasses adapted to Virginia’s climate and environment, creating a meadow-prairie effect. The taller grass will contain more vegetative mass, absorb more water and slow the run-off. Fewer chemicals will be required. And, as a bonus, the grass will create habitat for birds and a greater diversity of insects, a critical part of the wildlife food chain.

Robinson also wants to re-work the parking lots, which are notorious sources of run-off. The Streams of Stewardship plan calls for replacing the asphalt with pervious paving, which would allow some rain to percolate into the soil. Additionally, Lewis Ginter would replace the plants in mulched beds around the parking lots with native plants and shrubs that can trap and filter more water.

The really big plans call for establishing a native plant garden and a spring woodland garden to demonstrate the state of the art in bioremediation. The idea is to restore a stream running through the property and create a pond to settle sediment from erosion. The area would be surrounded by richly planted wetlands, meadow and woodlands. The project would capture and clean not only runoff from Lewis Ginter’s property but from water originating from a neighboring subdivision and from the Belmont Golf Course across Lakeside Drive. By mitigating this runoff, Robinson says, the riparian barrier would release much cleaner water into the watershed

Ann Jurcsyk, outreach and advocacy manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), is a big fan of Lewis Ginter, which collaborated with her group in the restoration of Upham Brook, a stream that runs by the northern end of the property. CBF launched a floating island loaded with nutrient-slurping plants in the garden’s Lake Sydnor. That island, which has become a magnet for turtles, is now known affectionately as Turtle Island. “I think their stewardship idea is tremendous,” she says. “I give them kudos for their overall vision.”

The one thing that unsettles Jurcsyk is the $9 million project cost. “Frank showed me the site drawings and concept drawings about two-and-a-half or three years ago. When he said it would cost $9 million, my draw dropped. … It will treat a tremendous amount of water. It will demonstrate that things can be beautiful and good for the environment. I wish the price tag weren’t $9 million.”

Extrapolated across the full 150,000 acres of Henrico County, that figure would imply a total cost of $6 billion or more to bring the county up to the same standard. Clearly, that would be prohibitively expensive. But Robinson says the $9 million number incorporates a lot of costs that would not apply to developers and landowners. For example, only a third of the $4 million phase 1 costs for the plan can be directly attributed to storm water mitigation. Other expenditures reflect the garden’s educational mission, making the area accessible so people can view and learn from it. Public pathways, bridge, lighting and interpretive signage account for more than $800,000; contingency allowances, which may not all be needed, also run up the estimate.

More to the point, says Robinson, “Our projects are probably more intense than the average mitigation project – higher than normal per square-foot investment in plants.” The idea is to create a showcase, to light up people’s imaginations.

Developers can hire engineering firms to help them meet the federal and state mandates. But engineered solutions may not be most aesthetically pleasing, Robinson contends. Richmond’s suburban landscape already is dotted with hundreds of ugly little drainage ponds. It would be unfortunate if the new regulations created more of the same.

Lewis Ginter will show how clean-water remedies can be integrated into the landscape and create more beauty. People are willing to pay a premium to live and work amidst attractive surroundings. If Richmonders approach the challenge with imagination and flair, they can turn a regulatory burden into a wealth-creating opportunity.

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