Pollution solutions for a rainy day
Tackle a problem by turning it into an opportunity. That age-old advice has been put into action by the Water Services Department, and the result is both promising and historic.
Five years ago, when the federal government ordered Kansas City to control sewage overflows into local creeks and rivers, the typical response would have been to build very large, very expensive (and not very beautiful) storage tanks. City leaders and staff met with neighborhoods to gauge their reaction, and here’s what they discovered:
“We came to public meetings to talk about sewers, but the people wanted to talk about damaged sidewalks, curb and street repairs, and speeding traffic,” remembers Cindy Circo, Mayor Pro Tem.
So they came up with another idea—spend the money instead on green infrastructure like curbside rain gardens, cascades, and permeable sidewalk pavement to control the overflows. Those methods might solve the problem and improve neighborhood streets at the same time.
OK, give it a try, said the Environmental Protection Agency, approving Kansas City as the first in the nation to use green infrastructure for this type of consent decree, part of a $4.5 to $5 billion, 25-year Overflow Control Program—the largest infrastructure investment in the City’s history.
A pilot project was designed in the Middle Blue River watershed near 75th Street and Troost Avenue. Lisa Treese was hired about the same time as a senior landscape architect in Water Services.
One of her responsibilities has been coordinating care for 135 rain gardens on public right-of-ways between sidewalks and curbs in that watershed. The idea is to slow down and capture rainwater so that most of it is absorbed into the ground and not into the combined sewer system.
The plants she uses include switch grass, sedges, rushes, coneflowers, iris and amsonia (blue star) bordered by daylilies, yarrow, fountain grass, dianthus, sedum and boxwoods.
Treese also helps design green infrastructure for places like Arletta Park. Located in a valley, it serves as a natural funnel for rainwater. Plans call for a limestone cascade, a walking trail and a landscaped retention basin. Another project will add water features and a trail to a 4-acre illegal dumping spot bordering The Paseo.
Although green infrastructure projects like these are built with the goal of improving water quality, the benefits go further, Treese says. They bring art and beauty to the landscape in ways that improve quality of life, property values and the environment.
“Kansas City is leveraging each dollar spent as part of the Overflow Control Program,” says Andy Shively, Water Services Engineering Officer. “Our investment in green solutions is transforming neighborhoods and encouraging new community partnerships.”
So while water and sewage rates will continue to rise in order to satisfy the federal mandate, the good news is that green solutions are working. Researchers recently measured groundwater infiltration after rainfall, and confirmed absorption rates were on par with traditional methods.