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Keeping runoff out of the river

Brent Hunsinger moves dirt from a the construction of a drainfield for a new home in the Lake Arrowhead neighborhood in Stafford County. He is doing work for the Friends of the Rappahannock. (Nov. 14, 2012) (Robert A. Martin/The Free Lance-Star)

RELATED:Potomac River report sounds an alarm over stormwater runoff


Mary Egge has three rain barrels at her home in Fredericksburg, but she wanted to do  more to help keep stormwater from her property out of the Rappahannock River.

 Egge, who lives in Normandy Village, within sight of the Rappahannock, added the newest feature last week: a rain garden to shunt additional runoff into the ground.

  The gravel-filled pit, which absorbs and holds water, was  built by the Friends of the Rappahannock.

 It is one of nine rain gardens installed by FOR over the past year under its Rainscape Retrofits program, funded by a grant from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

“I was using the rain barrels to save water, and I had heard about rain gardens before,” said Egge, who is a member of the river-protection organization.

  “My yard slopes down toward the river,” she said. During heavy rain, water runs across the yard, into the street and into the waterway, carrying with it any pollutants—oil, gas and pesticides, for example—it picks up along the way.

 Egge’s share of the cost was about $150 for materials.

 Rain gardens are typically topped with mulch and water-loving plants. She decided to use decorative gravel to finish it off  in a medicine-wheel pattern, to give her yard’s “green” addition a dual purpose.

 “It’s for prayer and meditation. I’ve created a sacred place” said Egge, an art teacher in Stafford.

 And she’s not done: “I want to add some benches for people to sit.”

On Wednesday, FOR staff and volunteers installed another rain garden in Lake Arrowhead subdivision in North Stafford.

Sarah Hagan, the volunteer stewardship coordinator with the Friends of the Rappahannock, takes measurement of a drainfield for a new home (background, right) in the Lake Arrowhead neighborhood in Stafford County. (Robert A. Martin/The Free Lance-Star)

 That one is in the front yard of a nearly finished  Habitat for Humanity house. Habitat, a nonprofit ecumenical Christian housing organization, has not yet chosen an owner for the property. Another Habitat house is under construction next door.

 Henry Kuiken, a Habitat representative at the site, said the organization heard that FOR was offering rain gardens to homeowners. That’s a relatively new wrinkle in stormwater control; they’re more typically found in commercial developments. Montgomery County, Md., has a similar program, also named Rainscapes.

 “We told [FOR] about the homes we were building, and they said they would like to work with us,” Kuiken said. “We provide the labor, they provide the stone, plants and stuff.”

 About a dozen students from  Broadneck High School in Annapolis, Md., had made their second trip to work on the Habitat home next door.

 A FOR crew began by digging a 4- by 20-foot trench about 2 feet deep.

 “We’re trying to make this one as low maintenance as possible,” said Sarah Hagan, FOR volunteer and stewardship coordinator.

 After the hole is done, and pea gravel added, “We’ll put mulch on top and that’s it.”

 Installations typically take a day or two. The size of the rain garden depend on the size of the home’s roof. The larger the roof, the more water the garden must hold.

 Homeowners pay about a quarter of the cost. The one at the Habitat house cost about $715; Egge’s—about half that size—was $475. The state grant was $90,000, with FOR chipping in half.

 Chip Rice, FOR’s projects manager who oversees the Rainscape Retrofits program, said it’s tied to larger state and federal efforts to reduce the amount of  polluted stormwater running into the Chesapeake Bay.

 The idea is bringing simple, inexpensive  solutions directly to homeowners.

 “Ours is squarely focused on those things to help them figure out what to do, and to bring resources to the table” such as volunteer labor, machinery and materials, he said.  “Our goal is [doing] as many low-tech solutions as we can.”

 Rain gardens are only one part of the initiative.

 Other options include: soil amendment, aeration to loosen compacted dirt, disconnecting downspouts to spread water more evenly on lawns, and installing rain barrels and cisterns.

  “Every project is designed with that home site in mind,” Rice said. FOR hopes to do a few more installations this year, and one a month next year, if funds are available.

 Things as simple as redirecting a downspout from a driveway to a lawn can help, he says. But rain gardens are gaining popularity, and can return larger amounts of runoff to the soil.

 “When [Hurricane] Sandy passed through, we had 5 to 6 inches of rain. All the rain gardens we put in worked perfectly and handled the storm pretty well.”

 Rainscape Retrofits,

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431