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Managing Stormwater Opens a Door to So Much More!

Rudbeckia hirta"It's going to affect the fishermen, it's going to affect the economy and all of that starts on Harbor Drive. It starts here," says Larry Heath, a member of PWCA and water quality volunteer monitoring Quantico Creek, at the end of our walk through the parking lots at Westminster, where he and other volunteers have been working to address stormwater runoff.

Stormwater, the water that accumulates on impervious surfaces like paved parking lots and rooftops, is a huge challenge in urban and suburban areas. This water picks up pollutants as it runs along surfaces, erodes stream banks, and degrades habitats for fish and other aquatic life.

In Prince William, our stormwater flows into the Potomac River and then on to the Chesapeake Bay. We're all familiar with the "Cheasepeake Bay starts here" decals on everything from public restroom faucets to drainage inlets along the road. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is more than 64,000 square miles and covers land in six states: Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

It's hard to think that anything we do in our backyards or, as in this case, in parking lots is going to do too much. As Larry explains, "Really we're just scratching the surface when it comes to stormwater but we're doing our part to move the culture in a different direction in terms of keeping stormwater in mind whenever you put in landscaping."

There's a sentiment here of hope, a belief that our actions, no matter how small, have an impact. While each individual project may not result in measurable improvements to water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, collectively these projects can result in big change. This is the cumulative effect of local action.

Additionally, Larry's story shows that other successes are worth celebrating too e.g. bringing joy to residents or seeing a Viceroy (butterfly) where previously you didn't. In October 2018, after 18 months of planning, Larry and about 20 volunteers planted 450 plants and converted three parking lot islands from a grass monoculture to a diverse native plant community designed to better manage stormwater from the parking lot roofs.

But the benefits don't stop there. Larry explains, "The idea for these areas are multiuse: they're functional for rainwater, they create new habitats, and they're aesthetically pleasing."

Grass before Rudbeckia hirta
  Conservation landscaping before (left) and after planting (right).

The key was collaboration. During the planning phase, Larry worked with Prince William Soil and Water, VA Tech, landscape architects, and master gardeners. Each volunteered insights and expertise to make the project great. "You need that collaboration. I'm not an expert, I coordinate it and learn as I go."

At each site, they checked utility lines, measured drainage i.e. perc test, and analyzed the soil for nutrient deficiencies. Then, with the guidance of landscape architect Josh Clark from the Anacostia Alliance, and Nancy Berlin, Prince William Master Gardeners, they selected native plants based on what was available at local nurseries and the habitat conditions in the island.

Rudbeckia hirta Rudbeckia hirta
Vegetative stormwater conveyance recently planted with Henry's Garnet Sweetspire (Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet') and the coneflower Rudbeckia fulgida in 2018 (left) and one year later during peak Rudbeckia bloom (right).

Even with the expert knowledge and careful planning, much of the learning happens after the plants are in the ground. "What's interesting here is that we have hydrangea, which likes moisture... but one here died and you can see why, the depression here accumulated water and it reached its tolerance... we had to pull it out," Next to it, though, the plant was thriving in a slightly elevated spot. " ended up being a scientific experiment."

Most of the plants are doing well and those that didn't indicate to Larry how water is flowing, which helps the project make small tweaks to these landscapes so that they're more effective. Plants will tell you a lot by watching them grow!

Rudbeckia hirta
Hydrangea and sedge (Carex appalachica) in the raingarden bed.

The project's success includes more than the plants themselves. Residents tell Larry how they enjoy looking out their window and seeing the span of colors and textures from the gardens, and beyond enjoyment this also reduces stress.

Then there's the winged visitors that are attracted to the new flowers. "Do you know the difference between a Monarch and Vicroy? I didn't until I saw them here and had to look up the difference." Larry's entry point into the project may have stemmed from his interest in stormwater management, but through the project he learned about soil, native plants, and butterfly identification. Learning opportunties abound in these types of projects because landuse, stormwater management, and biodiversity are all interconnected.

Bringing joy to people, building community, learning about native plants and butterflies – sounds like a success to me.  Remembering that day Larry reflects, "that was a lot of fun. It was organized chaos...we worked like hell...and everyone enjoyed it."

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