Meet your Chicagoland Stormwater Storage Requirements with a rain garden!

Introduction of Rain Garden Thresholds

Rain Garden ThresholdsHave you ever heard of a “Stormwater Utility Fee?”

If you live in Winnetka, Downers Grove, or Rolling Meadows you have. And if you don’t, your community leaders are more than likely discussing one right now for you to pay soon.

This quiet, nationwide trend of imposing a fee of anywhere from $5 to $250 per year on the typical 1/4 acre lot is how we are funding the costs associated with our continued impervious development practices.

The revenue from this fee goes towards updating and increasing our existing stormwater systems and/or promoting and implementing new green infrastructure projects.

Generally speaking, I believe that a stormwater fee is necessary and I support it, but I would like to submit an additional approach towards addressing our stormwater problems that village officials could implement, and it costs the residents and municipalities nothing.

Rain Garden Thresholds

As a member of the landscaping community I say to stormwater officials: “Help us help you.”

A landscaper’s spring is full of site visits to clients with stormwater issues. Usually, we look for ways to get the water off the site and into the stormwater system as fast and efficiently as possible. However, this practice only serves to add to the flooding issues we are seeing.

Landscapers are eager and willing to design creative solutions that keep stormwater on-site and at its source, but most have given up trying to do so.

The expensive, time-consuming, unorganized, non-uniform, moving target manner of the permitting process from village to village has led many landscapers to give up on promoting rain gardens, bioswales, and other stormwater retaining features to their clients altogether.

Let me walk you through a very generic, but all too common, example of why this is.

A client has a small drainage issue on the property that could be a great site for a small-scale rain garden. This is how the situation typically unfolds.

Step 1: Landscaper contacts the village to see what approval is needed for a rain garden.

Step 2: Landscaper is told that they are not sure if they need a permit, but the village will get back to them shortly.

Step 3: Two to five days later the village contacts the landscaper and tells them that they need to use a specific detailed drawing for the rain garden, no matter what the site conditions are or the amount of water involved. Typically, this rain garden template is over-engineered calling for 3′ plus of excavation followed by a specific amended soil mix infill with a pipe that goes God-knows-where at the bottom of it all, and perhaps some landscape fabric in there for good measure. Also, the permitting process will cost anywhere from $200 to $500 and the information you will need to produce for the permit is up to the discretion of the engineer at the village and may change after your initial submission.

This process results in a rain garden that is in no way cost-competitive with the traditional methods of drainage such as piping or grading, and leaves the landscaper with a feeling that seeking permission for a rain garden is a waste of time.

That said, as much as I personally would enjoy no regulations on rain gardens, this would be equally bad, or even worse, than the current situation.

If we allowed anyone to detain rainwater on-site at will, we would have standing water issues and water damage problems that would end up giving rain gardens a bad reputation and open up municipalities to the liabilities associated with flood damage.

In an effort to strike a balance between the eased implementation of rain gardens and limited exposure of liabilities for municipalities I’ve complied a list of “thresholds” under which a rain garden could be installed without any permitting or village oversight. The idea being that as long as a rain garden is being installed that complies with these thresholds, then a permit is not required as the water detained is minor and the process does not increase or change the current flow of water off the property.

– Work is not located in floodplain
– Does not divert stormwater from pre-existing drainage paths off property
– Does not increase stormwater runoff into pre-existing drainage paths off property
– Requires Minor Amount of Soil Disturbed (e.g., 5-15 Cubic Yards)
– Requires Minor Amount of Water Detained (e.g., < 200 Cubic Feet [20’ x 20’ x 6”]) - Minor Ponding Depth (e.g., Depth no greater than 6" deep)

Over the past two years I have had the privilege to serve on the ILCA Sustainability Committee. This past winter we completed our Small-Scale Rain Garden Guide for our membership, and in just two months it has been requested by over 150 landscapers. There is definitely interest on the part of landscapers. We are educating ourselves how to build rain gardens. Now we ask the stormwater officials to cut through some of the red tape and allow us to help them by streamlining the implementation of these sustainable stormwater practices in the so often seen small-scale settings where we can capture runoff at the source.

I will have the opportunity to present these thresholds at the DuPage County Stormwater Officials Meeting on May the 8th and I look forward to hearing their feedback. I know that we all have the same goals for stormwater reduction and water quality improvement, and I believe that by opening the lines of communication between our respective fields and discussing ways in which we can work together we will achieve our shared goals.

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