JeffCo H20:Taking a 180 on Stormwater

For thousands of years, stormwater has been viewed as something that needs to be carried away from inhabited areas as quickly as possible to prevent potential hazards such as flooding. While most ancient drainage systems handled both waste and stormwater, the first known drainage system built to handle just stormwater was constructed by the Indus civilization which thrived in the Indus River Valley from about 2300 to 1300 BC.
Fast forward to modern times. While modern stormwater drainage systems are effective in removing stormwater from paved areas and carrying this untreated water directly to local waterways, there are some unintended consequences. Many US communities have experienced a significant increase in development which has placed a disproportionate burden on existing infrastructure. This growth also means that the amount of impervious surfaces such as paved areas and roofs have increased as well, disrupting one of the natural functions of land which is to allow stormwater to soak into the ground. This important function recharges groundwater and replenishes streams during dry periods. This reduction in opportunities for stormwater to infiltrate has resulted in a dramatic increase in the amount and velocity of runoff traveling through the storm drainage system and entering rivers, creeks, lakes, streams and oceans. Since anything on the ground (oil, grease, yard chemicals, pet waste, litter, etc.) can be picked up by stormwater and washed into the stormwater drainage system, stormwater pollution has become the number one pollutant in our nation’s waterways.
Many older communities also are experiencing costly issues with deteriorating and insufficient infrastructure to manage the increasing stormwater demands placed upon it. These economic realities as well as federal water quality guidelines have encouraged them to rethink the old model of getting rid of stormwater as quickly as possible and explore some new approaches. And faced with changing weather patterns which continue to bring more severe storms, heat, floods, and drought, states, regions, and communities are looking for ways to more efficiently manage stormwater and utilize it as a resource rather than a liability.

One approach is introducing green infrastructure into the built environment. Unlike traditional gray infrastructure that consists of concrete and metal systems that carry stormwater away, green infrastructure minimizes impervious areas to keep and treat stormwater on site by providing it with opportunities to soak into the ground or by using containment techniques such as cisterns or rain barrels to capture and store it for later use. Green infrastructure is a component of an approach to land development or re-development called Low Impact Development (LID) which incorporates ways to manage stormwater on site into project designs. Green infrastructure reduces the amount of polluted runoff entering waterways by dealing with it where it occurs. It also allows the infrastructure to have more capacity to handle stormwater, thereby reducing flooding issues. Some examples of how these principles are being used by communities and developers include: removing curbs and gutters from roadways to allow rainwater to
soak into vegetated areas along the roads; replacing traditional pavement with permeable options so that stormwater can soak through and into the ground rather than run off; creating rain gardens and vegetated areas to slow down, filter, and infiltrate stormwater; planting trees to absorb stormwater, improve air quality, and reduce heat islands in urban areas; installing cisterns and rain barrels to capture rainwater flowing off structures so that it can be stored and used for irrigation at a later time; planting green roofs on structures to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff leaving the roofs as well as reduce heating and cooling costs. While it is difficult to quantify improvements that green infrastructure contributes to community quality of life, studies have shown that there is a definite positive economic value to implementing green infrastructure practices.
Many green infrastructure concepts can be implemented on a smaller scale for very little cost or no cost at your home. Since stormwater pollution comes from every home, street, business, and community throughout our area, every little bit of prevention that is implemented can help make a positive difference in our local waterways. Here are a few ideas to tap into the value of stormwater at your home using green infrastructure:

rain barrel - flowers
 Install a rain barrel and save money by using the collected water to irrigate your yard or garden. Just ½ inch of rain can fill a typical 50 – 55 gallon rain barrel. (Jefferson County averages 54 inches of rain each year, so do the math!)

Rain garden
 Create a rain garden in a low area of your yard and install water loving native plants like aster, black eyed Susan, and coneflower. This is a relatively inexpensive yet highly efficient feature which can absorb up to 40% more rain water than turfgrass alone.
 Plant a tree. One large tree can absorb up to 100 gallons of water per day, reduce home heating and cooling costs, and remove 13 pounds of carbon from the air each year.
 Allow areas of your yard to remain natural, and use pavers or gravel for walkways and driveways. All of these options serve to slow the flow of stormwater, spread it out, and allow it to soak into the ground rather than leaving your property.
 Add native plants to your landscape to attract birds and other wildlife. Not only will these areas be more efficient at absorbing stormwater; they also will be more resilient to pests, disease and drought, and the birds you attract will provide free bug control while reducing the need for pesticides and other yard chemicals.

Lyn DiClemente
Jefferson County Department of Storm Water Management
B-210 Jefferson County Courthouse Annex
716 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd. North
Birmingham, AL  35203


Back to the Basics

Years ago, I had a boss who used to remind the staff that the word ‘assume’ tells the story of what happens when you think people understand what you’re trying to communicate, but you don’t take the time to make sure. I won’t go into details, but you probably get the idea. While many of the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve’s blog readers have a good understanding of stormwater, polluted runoff, and pollution prevention, it’s sometimes a good thing to go back to the basics – and not assume!

Here in Jefferson County, we have more than 4,200 miles of waterways. Even though that seems like a lot, water doesn’t remain in one place – it constantly goes through cycles of precipitation, infiltration, evaporation, and condensation. And as it goes through these cycles, it winds up in oceans, rivers, creeks, streams, polar icecaps, underground aquifers, clouds, and living things (about 60% of an average adult is water). No matter where it is located, the total amount of water on earth – about 326 million trillion gallons – never changes. But only about 1% of that total is easily accessible fresh water. In the meantime, the world’s population of 7.087 billion continues to grow and place greater demands on water resources. That’s why it is in our best interest to conserve and protect the water that we do have.

Here’s where stormwater comes in. Stormwater is another name for rain and other types of precipitation. Stormwater is valuable and essential because it recharges ground water and feeds surface waterways. But as our population and developed areas have increased, so has the potential for stormwater to become polluted.

Most pollution found in surface waterways comes from people going about their everyday activities. Activities like that bag of weed and feed you spread on your lawn right before it rained. That little oil drip from your car that you keep meaning to get fixed. The ‘presents’ Fido leaves in your yard that you never seem to get around to removing. These are just a few examples, but all of these little potential pollutants can really add up when you consider that there are about 660,000 people living in Jefferson County.

Stormwater picks up these common substances from the ground, paved areas, and other surfaces, and carries them into the storm drainage system. The storm drainage system is a series of inlets, pipes, gutters and ditches which carry water – and anything mixed with or carried by it – away from streets and other paved areas. This system empties untreated stormwater into the nearest creek or stream. Stormwater that carries pollution is called polluted runoff.
The good news is that we could reduce the amount of polluted runoff in Jefferson County if each of us would make a few changes to prevent its causes.

JeffCo H2O will not assume! We will keep bringing you helpful information, ideas, resources and opportunities with the goal that we each will commit to doing our part to improve water quality here in Jefferson County.

Mark Your Calendar!


National Rivers Month
Celebrate our water resources by cleaning up a waterway near you!

June 5

World Environment Day
This year’s theme is Think Eat Save to encourage people to reduce food waste and food loss. It is estimated that 30% of food purchased in the US is thrown away. Consequently, half of the water used to produce food that is discarded also goes to waste.

June 8

World Oceans DayThe emphasis for 2013 is Together We Have the Power to Protect the Ocean. Even though we live a few hours away from the coast, all of our waterways eventually drain into the Gulf of Mexico. Something to think about when you are fishing or swimming in the Gulf!

June 26

Mild to Wild in < 24 Hours!
Lunch & Learn Seminar, 11:30 – 12:30, Birmingham Botanical Gardens
Find out how to travel with sustainability in mind to some of Alabama’s most beautiful destinations. Jay Grantland, Alabama Eco Adventures. Free. Refreshments will be served.


Lyn DiClemente
Jefferson County Department of Storm Water Management
B-210 Jefferson County Courthouse Annex
716 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd. North
Birmingham, AL  35203