Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

Photo credit: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Fall view of West Island MP. Photo credit: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

This July Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough new storm-water regulations. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden wants to demonstrate best practices that save the bay – and look really good doing it.

by James A. Bacon

About a decade ago the leadership of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, an institution known mainly for its formal gardens and conservatory of exotic tropical plants, began re-defining its mission. The new vision called for showcasing how Richmonders and Virginians might address endemic environmental problems such as invasive species and pollution caused by storm water run-off. It was a hard sell at the time, and the 2007-2008 recession dried up traditional sources of philanthropic funding. For years the $9 million project stalled.

But the economy has improved, donations have picked up and the “Streams of Stewardship” vision couldn’t be more timely. The plan calls for reclaiming a stream running through the garden’s 80-acre property, replacing turf lawns with native meadow grasses and using rain gardens to reduce parking-lot run-off – exactly the kinds of things that Virginians will have to do to meet strict new water standards designed to clean up streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.


View of West Island Garden. Photo credit: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Come July Virginia localities will have to get serious about reducing nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment borne by storm water run-off.  Localities will have 15 years to meet tough state-federal goals for the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of those pollutants detected in their waterways – achieve 5% reduction in the first five years, another 35% reduction in the second five years, and the final 60% reduction in the third five years. Nobody knows for sure how much it will cost or where the money will come from.

The relatively easy part will be implementing tighter regulations for new development. “The new standards are very stringent but well vetted, accepted by the developer community,” says Chris Pomeroy, chief counsel for the Virginia Association of Storm Water Agencies. As long as developers know the costs of new Best Management Practices up-front they can incorporate them into their business plans. “There’s peace in the valley on that subject now.”

The hard part, says Pomeroy, will be fixing old development. “It’s cheaper to build it right in the first place. It’ll cost something to do new development but the corrective action will cost far more.” The state Senate Finance Committee estimated that retrofitting the state could cost $15 billion. But even that is little more than a wild guess.

If Virginians are going to spend billions of dollars on retrofits, they might as well make sure the end result looks good. Lewis Ginter President Frank Robinson wants the botanical garden to be a living demonstration of the positive possibilities. With a little extra attention to detail, he says, storm-water remediation projects can become beautiful community assets.

In the 1990s and 2000s Lewis Ginter completed a series of improvements – two man-made ponds, a 1.5-acre man-made wetland and retrofitting building roofs to harvest and recycle two million gallons of rainwater annually. Not only did these investments help control water run-off, they made the facility water-independent by using rainwater to irrigate the grounds rather than expensive treated municipal water. By saving the need to purchase 500,000 gallons of  year from Henrico County, those investments offered an attractive Return on Investment.

The next step is to re-work the formal lawn near the entrance and west of the conservatory. Ornamental lawns always will have a place in Lewis Ginter’s formal gardens, explains Robinson, but maintaining vast swaths of turf is an outmoded idea inspired by 18th-century European landscaping models no longer appropriate for Virginia. Lawns of close-cropped green grass are unknown in the natural world and they can be maintained only through the expensive application of fertilizers. Grass lawns absorb little rainwater. The soil is typically compacted and the grass itself has little vegetative mass to hold the water. Rain just runs off horizontally, carrying the chemicals into the watershed where they feed the algae blooms that rob the water of life-giving oxygen.

Industrial discharges are tightly regulated and farmers are getting savvy about managing their fields, says Robinson. Lawns are the last great frontier of cleaning the Chesapeake Bay. The lawn of any individual homeowner seems small but multiply that size by a million suburban houses and the numbers get big. “There is more acreage in lawn in this state than any crop. … If it were a corporation flushing chemicals through their manufacturing plant, we’d be up in arms.”

Photo credit: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Asian Valley in spring. Photo credit: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

The plan is to replace several acres of turf with native grasses adapted to Virginia’s climate and environment, creating a meadow-prairie effect. The taller grass will contain more vegetative mass, absorb more water and slow the run-off. Fewer chemicals will be required. And, as a bonus, the grass will create habitat for birds and a greater diversity of insects, a critical part of the wildlife food chain.

Robinson also wants to re-work the parking lots, which are notorious sources of run-off. The Streams of Stewardship plan calls for replacing the asphalt with pervious paving, which would allow some rain to percolate into the soil. Additionally, Lewis Ginter would replace the plants in mulched beds around the parking lots with native plants and shrubs that can trap and filter more water.

The really big plans call for establishing a native plant garden and a spring woodland garden to demonstrate the state of the art in bioremediation. The idea is to restore a stream running through the property and create a pond to settle sediment from erosion. The area would be surrounded by richly planted wetlands, meadow and woodlands. The project would capture and clean not only runoff from Lewis Ginter’s property but from water originating from a neighboring subdivision and from the Belmont Golf Course across Lakeside Drive. By mitigating this runoff, Robinson says, the riparian barrier would release much cleaner water into the watershed.

Ann Jurcsyk, outreach and advocacy manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), is a big fan of Lewis Ginter, which collaborated with her group in the restoration of Upham Brook, a stream that runs by the northern end of the property. CBF launched a floating island loaded with nutrient-slurping plants in the garden’s Lake Sydnor. That island, which has become a magnet for turtles, is now known affectionately as Turtle Island. “I think their stewardship idea is tremendous,” she says. “I give them kudos for their overall vision.”

The one thing that unsettles Jurcsyk is the $9 million project cost. “Frank showed me the site drawings and concept drawings about two-and-a-half or three years ago. When he said it would cost $9 million, my draw dropped. … It will treat a tremendous amount of water. It will demonstrate that things can be beautiful and good for the environment. I wish the price tag weren’t $9 million.”

Extrapolated across the full 150,000 acres of Henrico County, that figure would imply a total cost of $6 billion or more to bring the county up to the same standard. Clearly, that would be prohibitively expensive. But Robinson says the $9 million number incorporates a lot of costs that would not apply to developers and landowners. For example, only a third of the $4 million phase 1 costs for the plan can be directly attributed to storm water mitigation. Other expenditures reflect the garden’s educational mission, making the area accessible so people can view and learn from it. Public pathways, bridge, lighting and interpretive signage account for more than $800,000; contingency allowances, which may not all be needed, also run up the estimate.

More to the point, says Robinson, “Our projects are probably more intense than the average mitigation project – higher than normal per square-foot investment in plants.” The idea is to create a showcase, to light up people’s imaginations.

Developers can hire engineering firms to help them meet the federal and state mandates. But engineered solutions may not be most aesthetically pleasing, Robinson contends. Richmond’s suburban landscape already is dotted with hundreds of ugly little drainage ponds. It would be unfortunate if the new regulations created more of the same.

Lewis Ginter will show how clean-water remedies can be integrated into the landscape and create more beauty. People are willing to pay a premium to live and work amidst attractive surroundings. If Richmonders approach the challenge with imagination and flair, they can turn a regulatory burden into a wealth-creating opportunity.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

21 responses to “Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

  1. Totally support their efforts and congrats to them for being a leader on the issue.

    One thing they have not necessarily available to older development is land to be converted to facilities to mitigate runoff.

    I’m not surprised at the extrapolated costs for Henrico -at all.

    I think the estimate is accurate and I think it points out just how costly our past development policies have been – and for those who are open-minded, gives a glimpse into what global warming costs might be.

    Further – as with the particulate matter issue – is this something the free market will address or is EPA regulation necessary?

    sometimes I feel the posts here avoid real issues. like why regulation is needed (or not) while at other times a post decrying regulation as evil – is written – as if there is no reasonable connection between regulation and it’s role in issues like this.

    when you look at regulation IN THIS CONTEXT – rather than isolating regulation in a separate post as ‘evil’ – I think we show more balance and honesty towards the issue.

    Lewis Ginter shows what it would cost “voluntarily” and truly private sector.

    how do we replicate what Lewis Ginter is doing – in an unregulated free market?

    isn’t that a question – 1. worth exploring and 2. admitting that it’s probably not going to succeed without regulation and 3. that you do need an agency like the EPA involved in the regulation… (or suggest a different approach) that can accomplish the goal without an “EPA”.

  2. You can’t replicate statewide what Lewis Ginter is doing in a free market. In a free market, people would not implement BMPs. That’s why we need regulation.

    Regarding your philosophical point, Larry, regulations are warranted to protect the public health and the environment. We can argue endlessly about how tight or flexible the regulations should be but there is no debate over the basic philosophical principle. I have been 100% consistent on that point. I don’t see what the issue is.

    • re: ” people would not implement BMPs”

      re: ” regulations are warranted to protect the public health and the environment.”

      re: where is your statement on the EPA?

      Would Virginia have storm water regulations if there were no EPA?

      Do you believe that regulations are needed but not the EPA?

      how do you have an EPA-type agency without the right wing going ape-crap over regulation in general?

      how do you reconcile the sentiment you express with regard to the need for regulation with the folks that claim to be Conservative like you?

      is there more than ONE GOP party these days and you’re in the moderate camp but there are other camps that do not subscribe at all to what you do?

      If we asked all the Congressional representatives in Va what they thought of the EPA – and it’s regulations for particulate matter and stormwater what do you think they would say? Would the views of the Va GOP be congruent with what you have said here or would it be way to the right of what you believe?

      • Argh! I speak for myself, not other conservatives! End of story.

        • re: other “conservatives”

          you’ve still not given your view of the EPA with respect to Virginia’s cleaner air and storm water regs. .. you know…

          you say you are not like the others.. and I’m asking you to weigh in on the EPA… which we both well know how other GOP feels… do you feel the same as the rest of the GOP ?

          we have cleaner air in Va and we have stormwater regs. I do not think we’d have either if it were not for the EPA.


  3. Virginia is headed for a “rain tax” just like Maryland. Rules may make new development meet the regulations but old development won’t meet the regs. Tearing up every existing house, store and apartment building’s grounds does not sound tur. The state will need to build runoff treatment centers and will have to pay for those centers. Assessing a cost per sq ft of non-porous surface seems like a reasonable “user pays” approach to me. However, the real test will come with agricultural runoff. The Big Ag lobby long has had a hold on the General Assembly. My bet is that this burden will be almost completely borne by the average citizen in Virginia with agricultural concerns exempted from participation.

    As for the rules themselves – good. You make a mess, you clean up the mess or pay the state to do it for you.

    • I mostly agree with DJ – except that if big Ag is growing food for people – that the costs of cleanup – will be incorporated into the price of food just as it would if there were increases in the price of fuel or other things needed to grow food.

      The problem with a place like NoVa is that NoVa used to be an exurb to DC in the 50,60,70 and no provision was made for stormwater so now – the amount of land available (to do what Lewis Ginter did) is more problematical.

      even steep slope land – normally not developed in the suburbs because it’s more expensive that less steep and cheaper land – easily available – …
      even steep slope land is valuable in NoVa.

      The obvious place to put regional storm water facilities is in the existing riparian corridors – probably make the “dry” so that they are usable for trails, and other recreation at most times but they get used as temporary retaining ponds during storms…

      otherwise – I’m not sure what options are available.. perhaps Tysons Engineer has thoughts on how to deal with older development that lacks storm water… facilities.

      • Larry,

        That is precisely the issue, its an economy of scale issue. For retrofits to be put for old subdivisions not redeveloping would be too costly for the residents to absorb (on the order of 10 to 15k one time fee plus use of common areas which are often rec spaces for those communities). For larger projects that are redeveloping, like high rises/mid rises, the cost to do so can be absorbed with the other construction costs being incurred. To a $40 million office or condo, to put in $200k of SWM management isnt an issue, if it means they don’t get delayed (the real cost).

        So it is often the larger land projects/high rises (those with an economy of scale on their side) who are the first to say yes please, make it uniform and we will do it.

        That being said we don’t want all of our suburban areas redeveloped. That is not good for society. Society needs established communities, that are variant in the type and available for families. So it will be the role to mitigate some of that existing detrimental development not likely to redevelop, by over correcting areas that are in redevelopment through stricter standards than would otherwise be necessary. That is kind of already happening with the requirements put in place for Tysons, areas of Four Mile Run in Arlington, etc, how much further it would have to go to completely cover the existing issues I’m not sure, would take a lot of study to figure out.

        • re: ” So it will be the role to mitigate some of that existing detrimental development not likely to redevelop, by over correcting areas that are in redevelopment through stricter standards than would otherwise be necessary. ”

          that sounds problematical unless there is a source of funding or other compensation for the developers.

          • Tysons Engineer

            The compensation is rezoning to higher density in the areas where it makes sense like Tysons/Arlington/Merrifield which were former low density industrial/commercial.

            The reason being that those rezonings are $80M for a building, sometimes up to $500M for an entire neighborhood like Arbor Row or Spring Hill Station. So 200k in stormwater costs which would otherwise be too much for a group of 20 home owners, becomes a negligible cost of business.

            $80M building with 400 units instead of 250 units means an extra $2 or $3 million per year in revenue after construction cost. Thats a big incentive, and it doesn’t take any public money just a willingness from zoning/planning to allow it to happen. Thats a good thing, as long as those developments play along with things like SWM, like school funding, like infrastructure. At its core thats really the beauty of smart growth, limited public risk but major public benefit.

        • looking at a map of NoVa – including the residential that abuts Accotink Creek – it’s watershed – it basically tells you why the creek is seriously impaired and further that it’s not going to be easily fixed without some kind of retrofitting in the area where the older development is because all of those existing homes are part of the problem.

          If you try to fix the problem downstream – the water is going to get there not only in huge volumes during runoff but with significant pollutants that have run off from the residential/ commercial upstream.

          I notice that Tysons is largely not in the Accotink watershed but instead in the Difficult Run watershed – a much smaller watershed that is not as densely developed (downstream from Tysons and towards the Potomac).

          why you seem to be suggesting, I think – is that we can’t fix Accotink and instead we’ll make up for it but making other creeks meet even higher than current standards so that when those cleaner creeks hit the Potomac, they’ll help offset Accotink.

          that’s sounds like a different approach that the EPA has done before with stormwater but I believe now they are including stormwater in the watershed TMDLs.. and perhaps that is in the plan.

          it’s just looks next to impossible to do anything significant in the Accotink watershed since it is almost built out in places – with older type development and less room for new stormwater facilites.

          still. it sounds bad. it sound like we’re going to write off Accotink – as a habitat for critters…or even water clean enough for dogs or humans to come in contact with.

          • Tysons Engineer

            Where you have specific impaired waterways like that, or for example Four Mile Run, the way you get it done is 1) mitigate indirectly for the overall watershed to the best extent possible 2) proffer for county wide stream restoration projects funding(by those higher zonings) that can act as a slush fund to fund areas where rezonings won’t be happening. That way, public funds and one time assessments don’t have to happen to people who moved into a house without knowledge of their role on impacting the waterway often miles away. To me, that seems more digestable and wouldn’t arouse the anger of the over-tax crowd, despite it being perhaps less of a user-fee. Its grandfathering, learning from mistakes, implementing the new concepts for new developments, and then trying to figure out how to deal with those grandfathered areas through alternative means.

          • I see what you are saying TE – and more or less agree with the approach… but still believe everyone should have a dog in the hunt via a tax that applies equally… and then let the county/city have the flexibility to use it – along with other incentives to mitigate but I worry about – performance – i.e. achieving the goals of the approach…

            this is not going to happen overnight anyhow.. we did not get here overnight just like we did not get to the CSO issues overnight.

          • Tysons Engineer

            In theory yes, but water management is such an abstract idea that most people will scream murder over being taxed for it. It deals with thousands of people, making tiny choices, living in established areas that they didnt design, and they will find it to be a punitive action when proper planning should have been undertaken.

            That being said, planning had no idea what water management was when most of that development was happening.

            So its a conundrum. I think pragmatically speaking, approaching on a front of an equal across the board impervious area tax on existing properties, would be a bad idea for politicians to undertake, with only the most accepting of residents believing it to be correct. It will surely draw national conservative fire, it will certainly become a divisive issue, and at the end of the day, its an issue of taking the path of least resistance and getting the funding from those who have the most to gain.

            The comparison being, see how hard it is to raise taxes at all to fund school construction. Its REALLY REALLY hard to say, hey we want to use your money to build more schools even though your school currently has issues of its own and your child won’t have any benefit because by the time its built they’ll be gone.

            Its a lot easier to just ask for a proffered $2 million from developers to otherwise get that funding. The developers then pass that cost in a dispersed way as a cost of purchase/housing to those who will be buying or renting in that school district. Thats just the reality of our society. I’m not sure theres much to be gained by fighting it.

          • most folks – inherently know what their sewer bill is for.. though

  4. Sewer separation is one thing, and sewer districts are already established for direct local fee structuring (see the service district discussion about Tysons). So that they could address with a specific fee/tax. But the larger issue beyond the one that is very specific to only a handful of areas in NOVA (with Combined sewer systems) is the overall impacts of standard stormwater runoff from lawns, parking lots, and other non-point source pollution. That becomes the bigger issue of mitigation because it so diffused it becomes an abstract idea to most. I doubt 90% of people know how stormwater works to be honest, not to their discredit, its just a really specific thing that the vast majority of people never have to worry about.

    • I note this about the Washington CSO tunnel ‘fix”:

      ” All that, for $2.6 billion. Where does the money come from?

      Customers. Finding a way to pay to restore other decrepit infrastructure — notably roads and bridges — has become a knotty issue, but water utilities send out monthly bills. Although DC Water services wholesale customers in Maryland and Virginia, most of the burden will fall on their customers in the District.

      The average water and sewer bill has gone up by more than 50 percent in recent years, to more than $65 a month for a single-family home.

      “Our ratepayers are paying for all this,” Hawkins said. “We estimate [there will be] rate increases for the next 10 years, and maybe for 20, and most of that’s for the tunnel.”

      now these are folks who are not going to get any more or better sewer service.. the money is going for something they mostly have no clue about.

      • Yes, and they exist in a location where they accepted the new fee. But in a place that has more… lets say taxes are wrong no matter what crowd, it wouldn’t have flown. Luckily, as I said, combined sewer systems are the exception not the rule in the US and certainly for most of Northern VA. Not sure about your neck of the woods or Richmond. Alexandria is already addressing there system, and soon Fairfax will address their very small portion. Not all CSO systems cost 2.6 billion to fix btw. That cost is because they are being forced to literally dig a massive tunnel underneath one of the most populated cities on the east coast.

        Seperating storm/sanitary near accotink would likely happen at the house hold level, with diverter piping not tunnels. We are talking somewhere in the realm of 20 to 30 million most likely. Not the end of the world, and easily addressed through proffers if a sewer tax district is not politically possible due to the current temperature in Fairfax.

        • well in the older cities, combined sewer systems were the norm because there was no treatment plant – everything from sewer to stormwater just went directly into the receiving stream.

          exurbs have much smaller water/sewer footprints compared to the rest of the county – but there’s tons of “utility drainage” … that goes direct into receiving streams ….

          and yes.. there is an uproar down this way about the state “imposing” “mandates” about stormwater.

          you keep talking about separate systems in the house – and I find it to be a fascinating and compelling idea but up against seriously embedded tradition.

          it’s ironic – that most RV systems ARE separate. They have black water and grey water…. so it makes perfect sense.

          but houses would have to be plumbed differently.

          Cisterns have been around a long time also.

          If you go to some islands -you’ll find that each house has a cistern and the potable water is separate from the cistern water which is used for toilets and showers…

          but how does any of this make sense once the pipes leave the house and go into whatever type of municipal system would exist?

          do you mean some kind of on-site cistern type system to capture runoff and use it in toilets.. or some such?

          • Tysons Engineer

            Will work on an exhibit I can share with you. You are thinking separation of sanitary from storm, its much more simple to separate storm from sanitary. Will work on exhibit and get back to you with it.

  5. re: ” The hard part, says Pomeroy, will be fixing old development. “It’s cheaper to build it right in the first place. It’ll cost something to do new development but the corrective action will cost far more.” The state Senate Finance Committee estimated that retrofitting the state could cost $15 billion. But even that is little more than a wild guess.”

    This is not only a fiscal problem – it’s a physical problem.

    you have to do SOMETHING with the volume of water. You cannot make it go away by saying PRESTO.

    that sound like a DUH but it’s the basic problem.

    but to this date – really simple stuff has not been developed to make this understandable to average folks and homeowners.

    for instance, how big a container length, width, diameter would you need to capture all the rain in a 5 inch rain on a typically 1500 square foot home roof?

    is it a rain barrel? is it one rain barrel at each corner of the house? is it a standard sized swimming pool? If the home owner knew this – and was given options to either make provisions for it on their property via storage tanks, ponds, porous pavement, rain-gardens, etc OR pay a tax to let the county do it OR get a partial credit for partial mitigation.

    so the state and the localities need to connect with citizens .. there are more folks out there that do care. A good percentage of people do recycle – they support the idea of recycling and those same people will be amenable to this issue once they understand it better and know what options are available.

    People save paper, plastic bags, bottles, oil, etc.. because they know it’s better than just land-filling it…

    back in the day -people actually used to dump motor oil on their driveways. They just did not know any better but once they were told – not all at first – but more and more – over time – understood and took responsibility.

    I change my own oil – and I take the used oil to the recycling center. Twice a year the county takes old paint, pesticides, fuel, etc.. and I scour the garage for that stuff.. something – years ago – just tossed .. in the garbage.

    our recycling center takes batteries, compact florescents, refrigerators, air conditioners, propane tanks.. etc… and .. the operation – pays for itself.

    we need to have some equivalent approach to storm water and I think once better explained a lot of the public will support it.

Leave a Reply