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Church rain gardens help control flooding, improve watershed quality

In the concrete jungle, an hour-long downpour can cause an all-day headache. Rain gushing from streets and sidewalks, parking lots, roofs and other impermeable surfaces quickly overwhelms a city’s sewer system. The results: flooded basements, backed-up sewers, and decreased water quality in lakes and rivers inundated with untreated wastewater and pollutants.

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Jersey City, N.J., knows this problem well. “Tremendous problems with water” have included basement flooding and Hurricane Sandy, which affected many parts of Jersey City and Hoboken, said Jessica Lambert, pastor. 

The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Jersey City to upgrade its aging, dilapidated sewer system, which sends storm water directly into the Hudson River. In the meantime, St. Paul installed a rain garden in May to try to keep the water out of its building and the sewer system.

Rain gardens mimic nature in places where pavement gets in the way. Constructed with porous, absorbent material and filled with plants that can withstand flooding, these gardens slowly percolate water through layers of roots and soil. By the time storm water reaches a lake or river, pollutants such as gasoline, oil and fertilizers have been greatly reduced.

St. Paul’s 5-by-25-foot rain garden runs between the church and its driveway. Compacted clay soil was dug out and replaced with three different layers of more absorbent soil, followed by mulch and native plants. Designed by the New Jersey Tree Foundation and installed with the help of parishioners, the rain garden catches water from the 6,000-foot parking lot. Water from the 4,000-square-foot roof is captured in underground tanks and released slowly into the sewer system.

The project is part of the congregation’s post-Sandy emphasis on building community resiliency and disaster preparedness. “Our rain garden, our community dinners, food pantry and garden are proof that even small changes can affect the community and make a real difference,” Lambert said.  

Grants offset costs

Jersey City has eight years to upgrade its sanitary system. Rain gardens tackle the storm water problem much faster. To help the idea spread, agencies like Sustainable Jersey City, which funded the St. Paul project, are paying churches and other nonprofits to create demonstration rain gardens. Large roofs and parking lots make churches ideal candidates. When an inch of rain falls, a 1,000-square-foot roof can send 600 gallons of water into a storm system. 

Municipalities are taking notice and funding water system upgrades by assessing storm water management fees based on square footage (about $900 a year for a church with 10,000 square feet of roof and parking). 

Grants, discounts and waivers available for rain gardens and mediation steps are one reason churches are building them. Theology is another reason.  

“We celebrate the importance of water in our lives, in our faith story, in our worship life,” said Jay Carlson, a pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Minneapolis. “A rain garden is an opportunity to celebrate God’s gifts of creation and the gift of living with and caring for the natural world.” 

Holy Trinity needed to comply with a Minneapolis regulation that required thousands of buildings to disconnect their roof drains from the city storm water system. “We could have diverted it to the street or alley, but we decided to keep it on the property,” Carlson said. 

A grant helped build a courtyard with “pervious” pavement—which water can penetrate — and three rainwater gardens that can hold 2,108 cubic feet of runoff.  

“Many people from the community use our ‘Rainwater Discovery Courtyard’ as a way to go between 31st Street and Lake Street, or just to sit and enjoy the surroundings,” Carlson said.


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