Rain garden guide helping Oregonians manage stormwater


CORVALLIS, Ore.If you have a lemon, make lemonade. In Oregon, if you have excess rainwater, make a rain garden.

The Oregon Rain Garden Guide, produced by Oregon Sea Grant at Oregon State University, is the state’s first stormwater management resource for both novices and expert landscapers. An increasing number of Oregonians are disconnecting downspouts, building rain collection barrels and planting rain gardens to harvest water from their businesses, schools and front yards, according to co-author Robert Emanuel, an Oregon Sea Grant Extension specialist.

Rain gardens are sunken beds that absorb and treat stormwater runoff from rooftops, driveways and other paved surfaces. Runoff does not soak into the ground; instead it flows directly into sewers and surface waterways, such as streams or lakes. Landscaped rain gardens intercept runoff to reduce floods, recharge drinking water – and filter oil, garden chemicals and other pollutants. Rain gardens also provide wildlife habitat.

The need for an uncomplicated, step-by-step guide for stormwater management motivated Emanuel and a team of experts. "We needed a book, something polished, that our workshop participants could take into the field," said Emanuel.

In the past year, Emanuel and Sea Grant Extension colleague Derek Godwin have helped coordinate about 20 “Stormwater Solutions” workshops around Oregon, from the southern coast to Portland. Builders, developers, civil engineers, city planners and other land development professionals learn from case studies about permits, site design and costs. The techniques and plants described by the guide are showcased in demonstration sites at churches, parks, private homes, businesses and even a day care center.

"Rain gardens are the workhorses of low impact development," Emanuel said. Low impact development, or LID, is a stormwater management strategy that improves groundwater infiltration and mimics the natural water cycle. LID approaches are applied by urban and rural communities that face combined sewer overflows and poor water quality from residential, agricultural and industrial stormwater runoff.

“Moving water around your property can be intimidating; it can be a scary project for some people,” said Gaylen Beatty, manager of the Backyard Habitat Certification Program at Columbia Land Trust. “The Oregon Sea Grant guide is one of the best publications for rain gardens. I’ve bought several other manuals that are too complicated, and I become more confused after reading them.”

Beatty, in partnership with Audubon Society of Portland, visits about 500 Portland residents each year to assist in urban stormwater management, through the Columbia Land Trust’s Backyard Habitat Program.  The illustrated publication has become “an integral, user-friendly part of the homeowner packets we provide,” said Beatty.

It also has found avid supporters in other parts of the state, including southern Oregon, where Vicki Simpson, the urban and community conservationist for the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District sings its praises.

“Now I have a guide that takes rural and urban workshop participants from the theoretical to hands-on solutions,” Simpson said. "Everything from understanding your own soil’s properties, to sample garden design is in one book. It’s a starter.”

Reducing stormwater runoff helps cities improve the quality of water entering creeks and rivers. Planners are challenged to meet state and federal water quality standards and need solutions that are low-cost, low-maintenance and attractive, such as rain gardens. Oregon Sea Grant’s publication is both “accessible and affordable, and it can help small cities meet federal standards,” said Simpson.

Tammie Stark directs Lane Community College's Water Conservation Technician degree program, whose fall 2008 graduates were the nation's first. The students learn to design, implement and evaluate water conservation, and apply this in positions as city water resource specialists or managers.

“The students love the Rain Garden Guide,” said Stark. “There is very little curriculum written for our degree program, and Sea Grant’s guide fills that niche.”

The Oregon Rain Garden Guide won first prize in its category at the 2010 national Apex Awards for Publication Excellence. The guide also won a 2010 Silver Award from the Association of Natural Resource Extension Professionals. The 44-page publication is available through Oregon Sea Grant for $4.95, but it is also available for free online at http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/sgpubs/onlinepubs.html