Terrace rain gardens can solve a host of problems

Terraces--the space between the sidewalk and the street--are the wild west of city infrastructure.  The wide-open spaces.  They are a resource right under our noses, ignored by most.

Owned by the city, but within the personal space of homeowners, they are a delicate issue.  The city treads softly here.  But tread it must, for the good of the community.

My neighbor Bob Kowal, 537 Gately Terrace, has developed a novel kind of rain garden on his terrace.  Bob is a retired professor at the UW Botany Department.

If you look at his terrace garden, you wouldn't notice anything unusual, except that it's extremely luxuriant.  And it fills the entire terrace, from driveway to driveway.

But the secret of this particular design is it's depth.  Before planting, he removed the sod and earth to a depth of 12-18 inches below sidewalk level.  Depth allows two important things:
  • Runoff from the sidewalk can flow unimpeded into the garden.  This increases water available to the plants by about 50%.
  • In the fall, leaves can be left to compost in the garden.  Over the years, these decomposing leaves enrich the soil, without bringing the surface above the sidewalk.
Next, Bob mixed the remaining soil with coffee grounds recycled from a nearby coffee house.  Finally, he planted mostly native plants, plus a few exotics which require no maintenance.  The only maintenance required is a little weeding, especially of maple seedlings. 

This supercharged rain garden runs on caffein.

Soon, I'll give detailed instructions how to construct a terrace garden.  Remember, removing the soil is absolutely essential--and, it's a LOT of work.

Battle of the Bulge

Here's the reason why removing soil is so important:  Over the years, the soil in the terrace begins to bulge upward as tree and grass roots expand.  This bulge prevents water from leaving the sidewalk, so instead it often flows to the driveway, then onto the street. The groundwater isn't recharged.  Icy patches form on the sidewalk in winter.

Likewise, the bulgeing terrace creates a slope to the street, shedding water and eroded soil onto the street.  The terrace becomes a desert island, surrounded by pavement.  Terraces are often neglected--but instead, these overlooked spots can become a beautiful oasis, and improve the health of our lakes.

Neglected: There's an eroding, weedy terrace on every block.

Sometimes better than the City's design

Near West High School, the city has built a number of experimental rain gardens on the terraces, in cooperation with residents.  These gardens take runoff from the streets, an excellent idea.  But these gardens don't fill the entire terrace, and aren't as deep.  Probably the soil wasn't improved as thoroughly.  The entrances for most of these rain gardens have become clogged.

Terrace rain gardens can start to expand the rain garden movement beyond just serving downspouts at homes.  They can handle runoff from sidewalks now, and with some improvements, streets as well.

I'm especially enthusiastic about the Adams Street rain garden project, where nine terrace gardens were planted with community involvement.  Many of these gardens take runoff from the street.

Compelling advangtages of terrace rain gardens
  • Beautiful garden, separates your yard from the street
  • Nearly maintenance free
  • Infiltrates sidewalk runoff, improves the watershed
  • Recycles leaves, coffeehouse waste, and street sweepings--like buds & seeds in the spring
  • Prevents icy puddles in winter on sidewalk
  • No need to periodically "edge" the grass along your sidewalk
  • No need to rake, mow, fertilize, or water your terrace grass
  • Prevents soil erosion from sloped terraces into gutter
  • Flexible--you can expand the size as you have time.
  • Better than downspout garden in your front yard--Direct your downspout here, save yard space
  • May save money on your water bill  (I'm checking on this)
  • Removing the soil is a lot of work, and you need some place to put removed soil.  If the city had a progarm for removing the soil, for free, terrace rain gardens could really take off.
  • Cost of the plants (I get all mine free as throwaways from neighbors)
  • Sidewalk must slope toward terrace, at least in some places.
Questions and  answers

Why do so many rain gardens look "anemic,"  with few, small, unhealthy plants?

Remember, most rain gardens are new.  They will improve with age, if maintained.  Secondly, when you make a rain garden, you dig down into poorer soil.  So it's very important to improve the soil at first, and to keep the fall leaves in the garden.

Can't I just pile mulch or compost on my terrace grass, then plant some native plants?  That's easier than digging out the soil.

Yes, many people do that.  But this causes the garden surface to hump even more above the sidewalk.  Rain will run into the sidewalk, depriving your garden of much moisture.  You'll lose other advantages as well.

Isn't the City's plan for rain gardens better, since it takes water from the street, and I can cost-share with the city? 

It all depends on local conditions, and how the water flows.  You have to observe that.  If the slope is right to take a good flow from the street, then the City's design may be best.  If your sidewalk slopes away from your terrace, again the City's design may be best.  But the City design is going to cost you, and you can do Bob Kowal's design for free (plus sweat).

My street was reconstructed, and now the terraces are low enough to take rain from my sidewalk.  So, do I really need to do anything?

No, you are set!  The reconstruction has fixed the main problem--that bulge on the terrace.  Your terrace will still absorb rain.   But now it's easier to plant a garden, since you don't have to dig out the soil as much.  A garden with native plants will require less maintenance than grass.

Won't the City object if I put a garden on the terrace?

I'm checking on this.  Technically, the City has to approve what you do with the terrace.  But hundreds of people are planting their terraces--even with vegetables--and no one has been thrown in jail.  Be sure to call the Diggers Hotline before you dig!

#     #     #

Related article on Guerrilla Gardening here.

Storm over Lake Wingra

On May 26, there was a brief but intense storm.  

Lake Wingra is almost completely surrounded by the Arboretum and other buffer lands.  It's watershed is within the City of Madison, so we can't blame farmers for water polllution.  If we can't protect Lake Wingra, then what CAN Madison protect?

Soon, I'll be reporting on the effects of this storm, and erosion problems around Lake Wingra.

Plant Sale--Friday

A sale of locally and sustainably grown plants to benefit the Dane County TimeBank.

Mostly perennials, some annuals, bulbs, vegetable seedlings, houseplants, 4 gallon pots, gardening books, herbs, seeds, and shrubs.

Plants include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, peonies, white hydrangeas, lilac, elderberry, pussy willow, lilies, pink geranium (perennial), sky blue aster, hostas, ostrich fern, and more!

Prices range from $4 - 50 cents. Thanks!

Where: The white house at the corner of Commercial and Oak, Madison, 53704.
When:   May 28th from 5 - 7:00 pm


Improved controls needed for sediment from construction

Stormclouds over Sequoia Commons...
Are techniques adequate to control sediment from construction?

Thirteen days ago on May 12, I wrote about sedimentation problems at Sequoia Commons, caused by Krupp Construction.  The same day, I contacted Tim Troester with the City, who is responsible for working with contractors to control erosion.  He inspected the site right away. 

Nevertheless, problems persist.  This morning, there was a moderately heavy rain, though brief.  I inspected the construction site during the rain, and found that runoff in the stormwater gutter on the side of Caromar St. was flowing through construction debris--debris which had "crept" out of the site.

After the rain finished, muddy tracks could be found on the streets around the site--some as far as 4 blocks away. 

Krupp is obligated by law to sweep muddy tracks from the street at the end of the day.  They are obliged to find and clean ALL muddy tracks, not just within a block or so of the site.  Today, muddy tracks remained about quitting time, with more rain starting to fall.

I called Mark DeAmicis at Krupp,  who is responsible for ensuring streets nearby are swept clean of construction debris.  He said that the street nearby is swept regularly by a Bobcat, which I could see parked near the south Caromar entrance.
Bobcat for cleaning mud from the street...
closing the barn door after the mud escapes.

Is sweeping muddy tracks important?  Can it even do the job?

Krupp has done an excellent job of designing the silt barriers and grading the site, to keep muddy runoff from escaping.  (The only exception is the north Caromar entrance.)

The muddy tracks aren't a question of appearance--because they aren't very noticeable.  So why am I blowing the whistle, given how well Krupp has done with the silt barriers?

I'm focusing on muddy tracks because tracks you can see are just the tip of the iceberg.  If you can see any tracks at all, then you can bet there are tons of mud washing into our lakes from this construction site (see calculations below). 

Despite substantial toughening of regulations for construction sites over the years, what's happening at Sequoia Commons suggests we need a new ordinance to require more effective techniques. 

It would be nice (and in fact the present law requires it) if Krupp would schedule a street sweeping for after the last vehicle leaves the site.  But it's clear that's not enough--because the bulk of the mud is dropped beyond the sweeping distance.

What's really needed is a system of high-pressure water sprays to clean wheels before trucks leave the site.

Cleaning tires--
it's not rocket science.

My mother taught me to wipe my feet before I came in the house.  So why can't trucks leaving construction sites wipe their feet before they track muddy footprints into the lakes?

Upper left: Tracks by north entrance about noon. Click on photo to enlarge.

Upper right: Same area at quitting time.  Different tracks indicate there was an earlier sweeping, but not late enough to remove all the tracks before another rainstorm after work.

Bottom left: Faint tracks & small clods on Gately Ter, 4 blocks away.

Click here for more photos of sediment problems at Sequoia.

Why sediment matters

Sediment flowing after a storm into L. Mendota. 
Photo by Prof. Kiefer, UW Engineering, @1968.

Delta of sediment forming in University Bay, at the mouth of Willow Creek. Photo by Gavia Immer.

Nine tons of sediment a year from Sequoia--rough calculations

The calculations below are guesses, needing much refinement.  The purpose is simply to show how mud on tires can really add up.   Since it's tracked onto the streets, which dump stormwater into the lake, it's a serious problem for the lakes. 

And Madisonians care about the lakes, but are dissatisfied with what the City is doing to care for them.

Each tire above easily carries 10 pounds of mud

Some of the sediment may be trapped before it reaches the lakes--but that only increases maintenance costs for the City.

  • Assume construction takes 1 year, 5 days a week for 52 weeks.  Assume that only half of those days have mud on-site (rain is less frequent--but mud persists for a while).  This gives 130 days a year when mud might be tracked off-site.
  • Assume each day, on average, 10 visits of vehicles with large wheels, 6 wheels per vehicle (concrete tucks have more tires).  Assume each wheel can track 2 lbs of mud off-site.  Total, 12 lbs mud per visit or 120 lbs per day.
  • Assume each day 20 visits by smaller vehicles like pickup trucks, with 4 wheels.  Each vehicle tracks a total of 1 lb mud off site.  Total, 20 lbs per day.
The total mud tracked per day is 140 lbs X 130 days, for a grand total of over 18,000 lbs/year, or 9 tons.

How can so much mud be tracked out, when you can barely see the tracks?  Simple--it's miles before all the mud drops off the tires.  It's spread so thinly across the roads you can barely see it.  But it still winds up in the lake.  After a rain storm in June, I followed one muddy track for six miles.

Yahara Materials--Every truck trip has two polluting ends.

The truck traffic from each construction site is coming from, or going to, another location where muddy tracks can also occur.  For example much of the gravel for construction sites originates at Yahara Materials, the Meinholz Quarry #7.  This quarry has multiple violations of erosion control laws, including muddy tracks, no gravel tracking pad, and ineffective sediment fences.  So in effect, you can multiply the 9 tons above by 2--to account for the sediment at each end of a vehicle trip.

I'm not picking nits--following the muddy footprints shows our current laws are inadequate to protect the lakes.
#     #     #

Update: As of May 27, Krupp had improved the gravel apron at the north entrance on Caromar St., and had beefed up the barrier to runoff, where it was vulnerable at the NE corner of the site.  But there were still muddy tracks on Caromar.


Be a champion of the lakes in June

Take a Stake in the Lakes Days--2010
  • June 3--Dane County Waters Awards Ceremony
  • June 4-6--Yahara Paddle Adventure
  • June 12--Clean Up on Mendota and Kegonsa
  • June 19--Clean Up on Monona, Waubesa, and Wingra
  • June 26--Beach Party
Find out more.

A fox in the chicken house?

Grey fox enjoying the warmth of a road on a cool night. Big Bend NP.

Since my neighbors are now raising chickens, and because foxes have been reported around the greenway--a natural question arises.   "Will the fox eat my chickens?"


I found a wonderfully factual and readable article about urban foxes here. It talks about fox biology, control, and how to keep your chickens safe.

And some of my neighbors talk about problem animals--trapping and releasing them as a "humane solution." But it's neither humane, nor a solution.  Find out more here.


Money wasted on project to stop algae at beaches

It's probable that bringing green infrastructure to Madison will depend on showing it's cost effective.  That's why I'm going to discuss the algae barriers planned for two beaches in Madison.
.     .     .     .     .  
According to the State Journal, "Madison will launch a test project next month to see whether boom-like structures can cut down on the sometimes toxic algae that covers parts of lakes Monona and Mendota during the summer, causing beach closures and endangering swimmers."

"BB Clarke on the Near East Side and Bernies on the south shore of Monona Bay will have geotextile fabric barriers placed near or around their swimming areas in an effort to keep algae out."

"The two beaches were closed for a combined 63 days from 2005 to 2009 due to growth of blue-green algae, according to Public Health Madison and Dane County."

"'Our objective is, how can we direct or move these (algae) scums away from our beaches,' said John Reimer, who is helping lead the project for the city's Engineering Division."

Not addressing the real cause

The real cause of the algae blooms is not lack of barriers--it's excess nutrients in the lakes, which stimulate algae growth.  The nutrients wash into the lakes because there are too many paved surfaces, and not enough rain gardens and sediment traps.

This is typical of the City's short-term response.  Someone complains about a problem, and the Engineering Division applies a Band-Aid.

This Band-Aid is going to cost $60,000 (not including staff time) for just the pilot project at two beaches. 

Neighborhood groups meet and debate.  Much time is wasted.  Officials get credit for looking like they are doing something-- but long-term leadership is lacking, and the underlying cause remains.  The algae continue to grow and release their toxins--now just a few feet further from the swimmers.

Let's assume this project gains enough support to be expanded.  Assume barriers are adopted for 10 beaches, for a total cost of $300,000 a year.  If continued for 10 years, the barriers would cost a total of $3 million.  In the end, there would be just as much algae.  Probably more, because the city will have grown.

Imagine a more cost-effective response

Street-side swale and adjacent pervious concrete sidewalk in Seattle, Washington. Wikipedia.

Imagine instead, that money is put into rain gardens.  Let's assume you can build a large rain garden that takes runoff from streets, for $10,000.*  They are equipped with a few benches, becoming a "green oasis" in the city,  maintained by local residents or businesses.  

For the $3 million spent on algae barriers, you could build instead 3,000 large rain gardens--each one serving as a tiny "park."   And--the key idea, at the end of 10 years, runoff of nutrients into the lakes would be significantly reduced.

The trap of short-term solutions

If we take the Band-Aid approach, people are deflected from solving the real problem.  If officials had the guts to let the beaches stink, and tell people the real cause was nutrients in the lakes, it could be an important opportunity for educating the public.

How many people would benefited from barriers at beaches?  I'd guess it's mostly the residents of those neighborhoods.   But they might see some modest improvement this coming summer.

However, if we could install instead 3,000 large rain gardens over 10 years, there would be no visible improvement in the lakes for some years.  But the slow improvements would benefit far more people.  Everyone who enjoys the lakes, from boaters to people sitting by the lakeside, would eventually benefit.

Besides benefiting more people, the rain garden approach would also involve the community.  In contrast, the barrier approach only involves a few paid workers.

Because the rain garden solution doesn't yield visible results at first, it takes strong leadership--and leadership is lacking.

The Engineering Division is like the helmsman on the Titanic.  They are just doing what they were told to do: "Full speed ahead, and damn the icebergs!"   It's time for the captain to wake up, and give them a new course and a more deliberate speed.

A survey** shows Madisonians are dissatisfied with how city officials are caring for our lakes.  Let's hope people aren't fooled by this lame barrier solution for the algae problem.

Large rain garden, taking runoff from parking lot, corner of Struck St. & Watts. Rd.

#     #     #

*  My figures are guestimates.  The WSJ says the "pilot program" would cost $60,000 this year, excluding staff time.  Probably the unit costs would go down if the project were expanded.  My figure for large rain gardens is a guess.  I'm simply trying to show an alternate way of looking at the problem.

And it's not just the budget for money--the carbon budget counts, also.  For barriers, trucks transport the barriers to the beach each year, burning fuel.  The barriers themselves are made from oil.  In contrast, rain gardens take carbon from the air and put it into the soil (in roots). 

** The 2009 "Resident Satisfaction Survey" shows that, in contrast to all other issues, residents are "somewhat dissatisfied" with lake quality, yet they rate the issue somewhere between "somewhat important" and "very important."  So on the chart of satisfaction VS importance, the issue of lake quality stands in a class of its own--it's the one big problem where the city is falling down.

Info on blue-green algae poisoning.

Interesting plan to build a regional manure digester, which would help reduce excess nutrients.


Survey of erosion in the Westmorland area

Fixing the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway is going to cost roughly $200,000, plus destroy 66 large trees.  Since "erosion control" is one of the two justifications for this project, I thought I'd see what other kinds of erosion occur in the Sunset Village and Westmorland neighborhoods.  

Is the greenway project stopping all erosion?  Or just a fraction?  These are the kinds of questions asked when you take a watershed approach.

Erosion is a serious problem because sooner or later, it requires costly maintenance, and because it pollutes our lakes.

Cutting to the chase--I'll show below that the greenway project is will stop only a fraction of the erosion.  Clearly, a comprehensive watershed approach is needed.

 Below, I list the "offenders," with the worst listed first.

The streets themselves

Although it's not strictly erosion--much organic matter (and sand during the winter) washes from the streets. Street sweeping is the first line of defense, followed by the catchment basins found in many neighborhoods.

I watched a Vactor truck working. They opened a trap door in the street, and proceeded to vacuum out the sediment. Pipes from each nearby storm sewer empty into this basin, which was about the size of a closet.

Vactor truck working to remove storm sewer sediment.

The workers said these catch basins are found in many neighborhoods--there are more of them, the closer you get to the lakes. I said: "This is a 1950's neighborhood--I imagine newer neighborhoods have more of them, right?" "Actually, not," the city worker replied. "There aren't so many in the newer neighborhoods."

There are some large sedimentation basins, like the pond at the base of Glenway St. that protects Lake Wingra.  These are the last line of defense.

I found so much organic matter washing into storm sewers, that it's clear we aren't doing enough here. What about enabling and educating residents to gather the piles of organic matter, after a storm, and have it picked up by the city?

Woodland Park below Glenway Golf Course

Here there are numerous broad paths, which are eroding in places and need a covering of wood chips.  While the area of pathways is large, they seldom discharge directly to a storm channel. 

In addition, up near the golf course, there is an eroding gully.  A large rain garden is needed to receive runoff from the Golf Course.

Gully forming just below Glenway Golf Course

Glenwood Children's Park

This neglected park has some severely eroded slopes, probably caused by children running up and down.  It's a favorite wild play area.  Happily, some of the trails in the park have recently been covered with wood chips.

Glenwood Children's Park--erosion caused by many little feet.

MG&E Glenway Substation

MG&E Glenway Substation--substantial erosion.

When an electric pole was changed last summer, a steep slope of the bikeway, next to the substation, was left denuded.  Now it's covered with unsightly weeds and there's an eroding channel at it's base, which is discharging directly to a stormwater drain.

Reconstruction of Midvale Blvd

Grass was not well-established on the median of Midvale Blvd, and the area adjacent to the curb is starting to erode.  While this erosion isn't especially severe in any one spot, the median strip is long, and the sediment goes directly to storm drains.

The city might reply, "Give us a break--it's early in the year, the grass will grow."  Yes, but early in the year is exactly when you should expect erosion to occur.

Krupp Construction at Sequoia Commons

Muddy tracks from Krupp construction at Sequoia Commons.

In the past, construction sites have been one of the largest urban sources of erosion and sediment.  Now there are tight laws to reduce sediment from construction.  When I checked construction at Sequoia Commons (corner of Tokay and Midvale Blvds), I was impressed at how well the tubular sediment dams were working.  There were just a few spots where the dams might be breached by a more severe storm.

However, vehicle traffic to and from the site was tracking substantial amounts of mud onto the streets.  From there, it goes straight to the lakes.  So, Krupp gets an A- on sediment dams, but only a C on tracking mud onto the streets.

Madison erosion control ordinances require that a construction site has a gravel apron clean enough to avoid tracking mud onto the streets. If muddy tracks do occur, then the construction company must clean up the mud on streets by the end of the day.  Krupp dropped the ball here.

Schools (Queen of Peace and Midvale Elementary)

Queen of Peace Church/School parking lot--eroded playground in rear.

Where children run and play, they often cause erosion.  The problem comes when the eroding soil discharges directly onto pavement.  At Midvale School, much of the erosion is buffered by grassy areas, but at the Queen of Peace school, the erosion discharges directly into the large parking lot, then heads to the lake. 

Residential Gardens

Rain garden needed!  Water from this downspout on Keating Ter. flows across a denuded garden, then into the street.

I did see a number of gardens that were still bare-- eroding and discharging their sediment onto the streets.  Some of these gardens were located on the terraces.   There are a few such houses per block.  It's hard to say how big the problem is.  Each source is small, so it depends on how many there are.  One solution: apply mulch when ground is bare in the spring.

How you can help
Report erosion problems to the City here.
Monitor a construction site in your neighborhood, and report problems to Tim Troester 267-1995.
Direct your downspout into a rain garden. Info on rain gardens.

My survey methods

I walked around the Westmorland and Sunset Village neighborhoods, on May 12 after two nights of rain.  The night of May 10 had moderately heavy rain.  I looked for bare soil, gullies, and especially, signs of sediment in the street gutters.  I don't pretend to have surveyed all spots, but I did probably find a cross section of the main offenders.  The areas I looked at all drain into Lake Wingra, or into L. Mendota via Willow Creek.

In judging how bad a source is, I took into account the eroding area, plus the severity of the erosion.  And if the eroded soil dumps directly onto pavement, then that magnifies the "sediment score," because that sediment goes straight to the lakes (or to a catchment basin which must be cleaned).

Go here for a slide show of the sediment sources.


Engineering's plans for greenway approved by Common Council

At the May 4 meeting of the Common Council, the Engineering Department's plans for the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway were approved.  No alders raised questions about the resolution (#18093).  A motion was made by Ald. Clear, seconded by Ald. Cnare, to Adopt.  The motion passed by voice vote, unanimously.  The Greenway lies within the district of Alder Chris Schmidt, who was in attendance.

On May 4 the Common Council approved the greenway plans.

One resident registered to speak in opposition--this writer.  Here's a summary of my comments:
  • I'm opposed to this project because the current process for designing and approving stormwater projects seems to be broken.  This project is not urgent, and should be postponed until a better process can be put in place.
  • The current process does not take into account the watershed upstream.  The erosion in the greenway that must be repaired was caused by excessive runoff upstream, yet no effort has been made by City Engineering to address those runoff problems. 
  • Instead, City Engineering seems overly focused on building bigger and better ways to speed polluted runoff to the lakes.
  • This project became more controversial than anyone expected, because the greenway was neglected for many decades. During that time, it became a treasured natural "oasis" for local residents. 
  • So the greenway shows that this and other stormwater channels have tremendous potential for the city as green space.  As the city grows and becomes more dense (as is the policy), such green space could contribute enormously to our quality of life.  Yet the current stormwater planning process seems blind to this potential.  Unless the process is improved,  future greenspace will continue to be buried under tons of sterile riprap.
A broken process for stormwater planning

All of us--including residents, alder Chris Schmidt, and engineer Lisa Coleman--wasted enormous amounts of time, because of the controversy generated by a broken process.

Alder Chris Schmidt made an important contribution by mediating between concerned residents and the city's Engineering Department.  He spent untold hours patiently responding to emails, explaining technical matters, and attending meetings with residents.  He helped to secure some important compromises, such as leaving the stream open, rather than burying it in a pipe.  When I say the process is broken, I'm not referring to his part in the proces.  Indeed, we're very grateful for his contributions.

Rather, the problem seems to lie within City Engineering and the Board of Public Works.  City Engineering does not have a mandate or a willingness to address wider watershed issues, nor do they have the expertise to handle greenspace issues, such as landscaping or plantings. 

The Board of Public Works likewise has an overly narrow focus, and seems enormously overworked.   The meeting I attended went on for 5 hours, with 53 projects on the agenda.  With this burden, there's no way they can adequately address watershed or green space issues that arise during stormwater projects.  Unless the process is fixed, more and more controversy is going to clog up city government.

Remaining steps in the process
  • Project has to be put out for bids, and a contractor accepted.
  • Permits to be applied for: a Chapter 30 permit from the WDNR, a WRAPP from WDNR, a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, and an Erosion Control permit from the City of Madison will be required.
A better process

The Friends of Lake Wingra have an initiative to improve the stormwater planning process.  You can find a draft of their Stormwater Management Initiative here.  I'll be reporting more about it soon.

If you are upset by what is happening to our greenway, it's a done deal.  It will be more productive now to prevent the destruction of green space in other neighborhoods by supporting the initiative by Friends of Lake Wingra to overhaul the process.

You can also work for more green infrastructure during the upcoming planning process for Sunset Village.

Choices for the future

Stormwater policy can have a big impact on how a city looks:

As Madison grows, do we want to look more like Indianapolis?

Or do we want to develop our stormwater channels as green space?

The photo shows wildflowers in the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway, soon to be buried under tons of sterile rubble.


Protecting greenway trees from construction

According to plans for sewage construction in the greenway, many trees within the construction zone are slated for removal.  A construction fence will be provided, helping the contractor avoid damage to trees outside this zone.

However, there are a few large trees just outside the line that may sustain injury to their roots, with death resulting.  It's these trees that residents should make a special effort to save.

I found a good publication here describing how to protect these trees.

"Trees can be damaged or killed by a wide variety of construction activities. Some practices lead to obvious injuries such as broken branches or torn bark. Open wounds of this type deplete a plant's energy resources and provide entry points for insects, or for diseases such as oak wilt."

"The worst damage, however, often remains hidden underground. Roots are one of the most vital parts of a tree. They are responsible for nutrient and water uptake, store energy, and anchor the plant. Because they are so important, it is critical that you protect roots that lie in the path of construction."

Here are some additional points:  
  • The vulnerable large trees just outside the construction area should be found and marked.
  • Using guidelines in the article, the root area around the tree should be marked.  Some species have larger sensitive root zones than others.
  • The ground surface can be protected with wood chips, which later provides mulch for the tree.
  • Keep the tree well-watered and fertilized before and after construction.
  • Some additional trees might be threatened by the lateral sewage lines, and these trees won't be protected by the construction fence.  This hasn't been addressed in the planning.
  • Residents should keep an eye on these trees during construction, and raise a fuss if the trees are unnecessarily threatened. 

Eat your way to cleaner lakes

See this blog posting about eating carp as a way to improve our lakes.  Recipes!


Scenes after the rain

The following photos were taken in Indianapolis, after a rainstorm passed last Monday evening.  Indianapolis is another midwestern capital city, a bit larger than Madison.  Are we headed that way, with our emphasis on growth, without any long-term efforts to improve the livability of our city?

Our carbon economy at work.

Life out of balance. Clean trucks, dirty air.

Landscape out of harmony with the rain.

Rain garden, Indianapolis style.

Click on the photos to enlarge, or go here to see a slide show of these and similar photos.

Lessons from the Nashville flood

Last Monday, Nashville, TN, saw the worst floods in 75 years.  As the rain pelted down Sunday night, I was a hundred miles to the east camped out in the Smokey Mountains, listening to the thunder shake my trailer like the inside of a drum.

The next morning as I left the park, I passed the Little River, where two forks come together just above Townsend, TN.  The river was raging.  Where I had sat by its shore the day before reading the paper, dark waters were racing by.

It poured all night.  The Little River in TN, just above Townsend.

A day earlier, I sat here reading a paper beside the river.

Later, as I crossed the Tennessee and then the Ohio Rivers, I could see jams of debris--logs floating in the muddy waters.

There's a pungent essay about the floods in Nashville here.

All this set me to reflecting about floods... and stormwater.

In the Great Smoky Mountains, the watershed is in perfect health. 

A few days before the big flood, I was walking in a moderate rain that had been continuing for several hours.  Although I was getting soaked, the land was sucking it up like a sponge.  The water wasn't accumulating in pools anywhere--and it wasn't running in little streams across the ground anywhere.  The streams didn't swell during the rain, and the next morning, they didn't seem any more full than before.

So during normal storms, a healthy watershed soaks up all the rain.  But as I saw, there are extraordinary storms--or there are times when the soil is already saturated from previous storms.  This is when floods occur--and they are natural, even in healthy watersheds.   That's what floodplains and wetlands are for--to absorb and delay stormwaters the land can't absorb.

These natural floods do cause some erosion, especially along streambanks.  The resulting cuts in the bank create places for bank swallows and kingfishers to nest.   Again, the eroded soil is trapped in the wetlands downstream, where it does little harm.  Soon the waters are clear again.

What I learned in the Smokies

It's a mistake to think our city infrastructure--our storm sewers and channels--can handle all the floods.  There's a point beyond which it isn't productive to prevent flooding that occurs once the soil is saturated.  It's too expensive.  We need to find ways to live with the occasional flooding.

By living with flooding, I don't mean we should ignore problems caused by too much pavement.  Clearly, we need far more programs to deal with rainwater where it falls.  Madison is very backward in this respect.  Large buildings need green roofs of succulent plants.  We need rain gardens on the terraces and other areas nearby to handle street runoff--for every street except downtown areas.

And we can't stop all the erosion.  For example, on the west side of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, an eroding gully was filled with enough stone rubble to choke the Grand Canyon (photo).  The erosion needed to be stopped, but the solution was complete overkill.   Likewise, I think the solution to erosion in the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway is overdone.

A balanced approach

What I am talking about is the right balance.   Soak up the light rains as completely as possible where they fall--but when that fails in extreme storms, learn to moderate and live with the resulting floodwaters.

By live with flooding, I don't mean stand by while people drown.  I mean alternative, softer, less destructive solutions.  If some businesses along University Ave. get flooded too often, relocate them.  If saturated soil in an area causes a few flooded basements, the city needs a program to help citizens waterproof their basements.  Lacking balance, the city is too focused on building bigger and better ways to speed floodwaters to the lakes. 

We have a knee-jerk response by City Engineering to complaints.  If there's a problem like flooding basements or a stream wandering too close to some one's house, people scream "fix it!"  And the city applies a Band-Aid to the problem.  

But there's no voice, and no process, to ensure that the watershed is improved over the long term, so floodwaters are moderated at the source, where the rain hits the ground.

If only someone could complain: "There's no rain garden here!"  And the city would fix it.  Don't hold your breath.  That this sounds so laughable shows how far out of balance we are.

Madison is too focused on stopping floods downstream from where the water falls.  We need to relax that approach, learn other ways to moderate damage from inevitable floods, and refocus on stopping runoff where the raindrops hit the ground. 

That would be a better balance.

*     *     *

Click here for a slideshow of flooding on the Little River.


Plans to "daylight" streams in San Francisco

Read this interesting article about uncovering long-buried streams in San Francisco here.


What's blooming now in the greenway

Today, I made my first trip through the greenway this spring.  I was amazed by all the woodland widlflowers!  This ravine is such a wild resource for city dwellers!

Bluebells are blooming all along the ravine.

The celandine poppy, also known as woodland poppy, will spread easily in your shady garden.

The loveable, quirky, Jack in the Pulpit.  The flower is actually hidden inside the "pulpit."  The plants are either male or female, and the seeds are bright red berries on a stalk.  More.

Woodland violet flowers come in a variety of colors.  The flowers and leaves are edible, and it's also the state flower of Wisconsin.  More.

Wild geranium.

Prairie trillium. More on trilliums.

Wild ginger is valued for it's distinctive foliage-- the satiny, heart-shaped leaves seen here.  The curious flowers that droop to the ground are pollinated by flies--then the seeds are planted by ants.   More.

Click here for a slide show of the flowers.

Too bad--all this will be lost when the bulldozers arrive.

City Council vote on greenway plan--Attend tonight!

The City Council meets today at 6:30 pm to vote on the City's Hillcrest-Upland greenway plan that was approved by the Board of Public Works recently.  Citizens should attend and register (before the meeting) to speak.

The greenway is item #16 on the agenda:  "Approving Plans, Specifications, and Schedule of Assessments, Hillcrest Upland Greenway and Sanitary Lateral Assessment District."

To find out more about this miscarriage of planning, see today's excellent article on the issue here.  According to this article on the Capital Times website, planning went awry when the city proposed something without consulting residents first.  Yes, that's true--but the planning was off the track even before then, when City Engineering failed to consider larger watershed issues. 

The erosion in the greenway was caused by excessive runoff, yet ZERO effort has been made by City Engineering to assess or address runoff issues.  This project is like a Band-Aid for a seriously ill patient.  It's like solving a leak in your roof by putting pots on the floor inside.  When will the city start to "fix the roof?"

We need a new planning process which will really "fix the roof" by addressing watershed issues.  The result will be healthier lakes and streams, a more liveable city, and money saved on infrastructure.