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Water Woes: Riverwards Residents Learn About Stormwater Problems and Get Free Stuff From PWD

For Tom Reynolds and Lauren Rossi of Fishtown, the old cliche “the grass is always greener on the other side” took on a new meaning. Their neighbor didn’t have grass in her yard, but she did have permeable pavers that are even greener than grass, in an environmental sense. They delay stormwater from overwhelming the sewer system by allowing the water to absorb into the ground instead of running off into the street.

“There was definitely a little neighborly envy,” Tom joked.

Tom and Lauren watched as their neighbor’s pavers aged through the year.

“It’s really a beautiful product, really encouraging,” Lauren added.

Lauren Rossi

Lauren Rossi stands in her Fishtown backyard on top of the patio the Water Dept. helped pay for./Max Pulcini

They put a call into the same contractor and hired him to do the work on their property. But their motivation to install the pavers didn’t all come from wanting to look good.

“We are super proud [to be] good stewards of the environment,” Tom explained.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) was happy to help pay for the project through a program called Rain Check. And with good reason too.

Maggie Dunn is a certified community planner with PWD.

“We have what’s called a combined sewer,” Dunn said. So, “when it rains in most sections of Philadelphia, including the Riverwards … wastewater from people’s homes and rainwater that goes down the downspouts and in the storm drains in the street mixes together in one pipe underground.”

That was an efficient system way back when, and even today it functions well in good conditions. But, due to the massive amount of buildings and impermeable streets and sidewalks, rainy days are not “good” conditions for our system.

The current system is “not designed to manage that volume of water,” Dunn explained.

The combined wastewater and runoff goes to the water treatment plant. But the treatment plants are set up to “overflow into the Delaware River so, you have diluted sewage in the Delaware,” Dunn said. “That’s a major problem.”

The problem is not unique to Philly though. The federal government requires municipalities to do something about it.

“What is unique is the way Philadelphia is choosing to address this problem,” Dunn said. “If you can build things that mimic natural systems … you can keep some of that water” out of the system, Dunn said. It’s something the EPA calls “Predevelopment Hydrology,” which returning an area’s runoff rates to what they were “before human-induced land disturbance,” according to the agency’s website.

Accordingly, PWD recommends planting certain species of plants and trees with deep root systems. They’ll help guide you in selecting those species for your property. It’s also ready to put its money where its mouth is. They’ll also reimburse you up to $2000 to do one of these projects.

There are also free and lower cost solutions too. Another Fishtown resident, Marc Silver, took advantage of a free rain barrel, which attaches to a gutter downspout and saves the water for use in a garden or just to delay it running into the sewer system.

“We have some trees and shrubs that I thought would be good to water using the rain barrels,” Silver said, adding that the barrel alone takes care of several shrubs. His yard is big though so he needs to use city water for his lawn.

Silver’s main reason for adding the rain barrel was “water conservation.”

To get the free barrel or other tools, interested folks must go through a one-hour “workshop.” Silver enjoyed the session saying it was, “pretty fascinating” learning about the history of the sewer system and the issue of runoff.

He noted that the instructors were “quick and concise” and that “nobody seemed bored or in a rush” to get out of there.

Since last September, more than 1000 people have attended a workshop, according to data from PWD.

Silver also considered the permeable pavers but found the subsidy to be a bit low for his property.

stormwater patio

This patio is made of permeable pavers that aid in stormwater management./Max Pulcini

He has two side lots and therefore “three houses worth of concrete,” he said. Yet he is only eligible for the same subsidy as if he owned the single lot.

“The $2000 back is cool,” Silver said. “If we had just one small city row home … we could do it.” But he said one quote for a project came to $20,000.

Another idea Silver had was changing the one-time aspect of the subsidy to annual arrangement. “If we could have done part of it this year, a part of it next year, that’s another thing that would have spurred us on a little more.”

Dunn said the $2000 is definitely just an incentive.

It’s geared more “for people who [already] had a project in mind,” Dunn said. The money-back is just a nudge to do it.

Most homeowners pay about $2000 on their own, according to PWD data on Rain Check, but that “varies considerably by tool.”

There are no plans to expand the subsidy as it is largely funded through people’s water bills as a “stormwater charge … which is $15 a month right now [for residential],” she said.

And “that funds a lot of programs from the water department not just Rain Check,” Dunn said.

She also cautions that these tool don’t eliminate all problems. “When it rains just a half inch, water from an average row home roof will fill four rain barrels,” she said.

PWD gave out more than 7000 rain barrels since 2006. Since the program expanded to the pavers and gardens in 2012, they have overseen 12 depaving projects, 27 permeable paving projects, 22 rain gardens, 124 downspout planters, according to their records.

Tom and Lauren acknowledge that “free is better than pay” but point out that their property is more valuable and attractive now.

“No more puddles!” Tom said. The job also effectively stopped a minor water seepage issue in their basement.

Silver doesn’t want to to sound like sour grapes though. “Overall, the guys that were [involved] … were very enthusiastic, I really liked the workshop, I learned a bunch of stuff, it went a lot deeper that what I expected … so it was cool,” he said.

In the meantime he is holding out hope for further subsidiaries. He “definitely would like to see it perhaps expanded.”

For more information on how to get PDW’s Rain Ceck for your home visit http://www.phillywatersheds.org/whats_in_it_for_you/residents/raincheck

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