Videos and text by TIM FAUlKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — More rain is falling on Rhode Island thanks to climate change. Since 1905, annual precipitation has increased some 12 inches, much of it since 1970. Unless emissions are curbed, another 10 inches of rain and snow are projected each year by 2100, according to Climate Solutions New England.
All that water must go someplace, and in densely built states such as Rhode Island much of that runoff floods streets and flows untreated into streams, rivers and Narragansett Bay. Stormwater runoff carries with it debris and pollutants and overwhelms antiquated storm drains and wastewater treatment facilities.
Planners and advocacy groups are working on solutions. On a macro-scale there is the concept of a stormwater utility district, where property owners pay a fee based on the amount of asphalt and other impervious surfaces at their homes or businesses. The fee subsidizes infrastructure upgrades and entices people to lower the tax by cutting their stormwater footprint.
At the local level, residents can take simple steps to manage stormwater runoff on-site, like redirecting downspouts and building rain gardens that allow runoff to soak into the soil rather than flow into streets. These solutions are becoming a reality across Greater Providence thanks to the Rhode Island Green Infrastructure Coalition, a consortium of environmental groups.
Several creative water-management systems at Riverside Park in the city's Olneyville neighborhood serve as functioning exhibits. The test site offers appealing, natural landscapes of grasses and stone. They are easy to build and maintain, so that property owners consider installing them across the city.
Since 1994, the park and neighborhood has transitioned from an industrial brownfield rife with drug deals and prostitution to a low-crime public space that encourages fitness and community gathering. The land was reclaimed by a park and bike path, and new homes were built to bring back families. In recent years, asphalt and concrete was replaced with grasses, shrubs and trees to address flooding, provide natural habitat, and reduce heat and pollution.
The stormwater management projects called “Nature at Work” hires neighborhood youth to build and maintain the natural systems that channel stormwater into green spaces, such as bioretention areas, swales and grass-covered roofs. These systems absorb, filter and store water that might otherwise flow directly from roads and driveways into the Woonasquatucket River.
“It makes it a healthier place, a more welcoming place, and we also put our young people to work,” said Alicia Lehrer, executive director of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, the organization overseeing the projects. “If we are putting in a lot of these kinds of projects than we are supporting a local workforce.”
Antonio Medina has been in the organization's River Rangers apprentice program for two years, learning landscaping and engineering skills. In addition to overseeing the stormwater projects, he works for a West Warwick landscaping company.
“It’s not just a job. You get to learn new things for a career,” Medina said of the training program.
During a recent tour, Medina and Lehrer showcased the community garden, playing fields, a bike shop and their role in the efforts to restore the Fred Lippitt Woonasquatucket River Greenway.
A few block away on Manton Avenue, new and remodeled apartment buildings are outfitted with stormwater retention areas that collect runoff from roofs and parking lots. The natural stormwater systems are built through a partnership with engineers and developers.
“We are doing these projects to show they are really cool, they are really easy to do and they are something everybody would want to have in their neighborhood,” Lehrer said.
When and if a stormwater utility program becomes a reality, residents will be willing to pay the fee to reduce flooding and “just to make their world a little better,” Lehrer said.
The Nature at Work program is funded and supported by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the Providence Parks Department, the Pisces Foundation, Rhode Island Foundation, Tremco Inc., Groundwork Rhode Island, One Neighborhood Builders, the Cooley Group, Douglas Lumber, the City of Providence, Horsley Witten Group, William D'Abate Elementary, Riverzedge Arts, Louis Lariviere, and Pezzuco Construction.