Author: English-Bowers, Molly
Date published: November 9, 2011
From downtown rooftops to urban back yards, the Save the Rain effort is spreading like an Antarctic glacier. Since the initiative really got going in late 2009 under a court order, it has seen 50 distinct green infrastructure projects implemented, all with the goal of retuning rainwater and snowmelt to the ground instead of the sewer system. On Wednesday, Nov. 16, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney invites the community to celebrate in that success.
"Fifty is a big number," said Mahoney, "and I was hesitant to make the commitment that we would be able to do 50 public works projects in one year. It required the city to change a lot of the way things are done." All 50 projects are within city limits, and standard operating procedure dictates a series of hoops needing to be jumped through in order to get just one project approved. Mahoney said she approached the Common Council and Mayor Stephanie Miner with an unusual request.
"I asked the mayor if we could present all 50 projects to the Common Council as a whole. The Council and mayor's office have been very helpful in getting us to meet that goal. Keep in mind, though, that 50 projects will get us to about 20 percent of what we're required to do. We still have a long ways to go, but still 2011 was very successful for us."
One of the large projects involved the installation of a green roof atop the Monroe Building, 333 E. Onondaga St. Building owner Jeff DeRoberts, a local general practice attorney, learned about grant money available through Save the Rain to pay for the improvement.
"We had an engineer look at our roof," he explained. "It fit the criteria because we have a ledge around the roof, so there is easy access, it's easy to maintain and it's flat. It was ideal for a green roof." The project, which covers 5,000 square feet of the building's top and took place in July, started with a "green" membrane atop the existing roof surface, covered by soil, and then plantings.
Those plants, grown specifically for rooftop installation, came from Motherplants in Ithaca. "The owner has developed a niche in the Northeast," DeRoberts said, "growing specially formulated plants that grow in low soil. There's only two to four inches of soil due to weight restrictions, and these plants are restricted in how big they get. Obviously we can't plant oak trees."
The green portion of the new roof cost $99,000, DeRoberts said, and the grant money covered that. "The biggest expense is the green membrane that the soils and plants sit on," he noted. "I got quotes from three different manufacturers and the one we went with was the cheapest."
While the building wasn't in need of a new roof, DeRoberts was intrigued by the green angle of the project, especially since the building's Columbus Circle home routinely floods after a heavy rain. "Every spring at least once or twice, Columbus Circle gets flooded," he said. "Heavy rains combined with the storm sewers that back up cause flooding in my basement nearly every spring. So, not only does this green roof eliminate the amount of water going into the street's storm sewers, but I also paid for some additional sewer work in the basement."
Of course, the city is swimming in inadequate storm sewers that overflow after a heavy rain and lead directly to Onondaga Lake-the very body of water the county is under orders to clean up. That's why part of the Save the Rain project also included handing out rain barrels to city residents throughout 2011.
While the rain barrels aren't counted among the 50 municipal projects, their introduction has been so successful that Mahoney said that initiative will roll over to 2012. "We will continue to hold the rain barrel classes, as long as the residents live in the areas targeted under the consent order, and they attend the class to learn how to use the barrel, they can get one."
MacGarrett Becker is one such resident. He attended a paint-your-own rain barrel workshop at the Westcott Community Center in late May, and used the accumulated water all summer. "I felt like it was the right thing for the environment and a way to save water that was just running off my roof so I could use it to beautify my property," he said. "We also follow our dog around, cleaning up after him, to prevent brown spots in the grass."
After a summer with plentiful rain that kept the barrel amply supplied, Becker has emptied, broken down, dried and stored the vessel for the winter, following Save the Rain's suggestions. "The guidelines say early May to mid-October," he noted, adding that decorating his own barrel with an aquarium scene gave him a greater sense of pride in the effort. "It's not just a big ugly barrel in my back yard," he said. "It's a little piece of art."
And while he's experienced a slight decrease in his water bill, that wasn't the reason he took a barrel home. "I just feel better about returning the water to the earth and not turning on the tap."
The public is invited to celebrate the milestone Wednesday, Nov. 16, 5 to 8 p.m., at the Palace Theater, 2384 James St. There you can mingle with like-minded citizens as well as design professionals and Save the Rain representatives. Admission is free, while beverages will be available for purchase. RSVPs are requested to savetherain.eventbrite.com or by calling 443-3507.
"Since 1999, when I first held public office," Mahoney said, "I've been looking to other communities for ways to do things, and now, with the Save the Rain project, to think that the rest of the country is looking to us makes me very proud."