Blending Art, Science and Citizens for Clean Water

Environmental Commentary by Sara Kaplaniak

I recently participated in a wonderful event where art and science, young children and teenagers, teachers and parents converged in the name of beautifying and benefiting my town. At the event, which raised money for our school district’s education foundation, students painted rain barrels for sale to residents and businesses.

Decorated with designs created by elementary students and refined by their middle– and high-school counterparts, the 15 rain barrels boasted themes ranging from cityscapes and gardens to sports and literacy, to sea creatures and flamingoes. They were snapped up by impressed customers and will soon adorn lawns around town.

But the barrels will do more than add artistic pizzazz to the neighborhood, as students participating in the event learned. Currently, our landscape is ill-equipped to handle rainwater surging from rooftops, sidewalks, parking lots, paved roads and other impervious surfaces. The result is flooding and the flushing of chemicals, excess nutrients and even raw sewage into local waterways.

The barrels will help slow this rush. Attaching a rain barrel to almost any downspout can collect water and prevent it from overpowering the landscape. The reserved water can then be redirected towards gardens, potted plants and lawns. The slower release gives the watershed time to soak up rain and fulfill its role of natural water storage and filter.

That is more important than ever in my community. Our town of Camp Hill, Pa., has received failing grades for how it handles polluted water entering nearby streams. In fact, last spring the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) fined the town $140,000 for illegally dumping raw sewage into the Conodoguinet Creek on several occasions between 2011 and 2013. The DEP returned in October to investigate the release of chlorinated pool water in a location near the same creek. According to the DEP, the water should have been directed to the sewer system for treatment.

Reading these headlines disappointed me because I moved to Camp Hill to enjoy a lifestyle that generates less pollution and waste and encourages more time outdoors. This is a tree-lined town where residents can reach the grocery store, pharmacy, bank, library, swimming pool, athletic fields, parks and playgrounds, and even Starbucks, on foot or with a bicycle. That is also how most students get to school. It’s a place that should serve as a model for working with the natural environment – not against it.

So what is the solution for Camp Hill, and towns like it, plagued by challenges resulting from aging water and sewer infrastructures, costly state and federal mandates for fixing them, and a lack of creativity by decision-makers? Across the Susquehanna River, another town recently convened to address the same question. One proposed solution included becoming one of the first Pennsylvania municipalities to form a stormwater authority. Such authorities are similar to those managing sewer and drinking water systems.

More common in other parts of the country, stormwater authorities can borrow money, usually through bond issues, or charge a user fee to apply toward the construction and maintenance of the systems. Property owners can earn credits and reduce their fees with measures that prevent runoff such as rain barrels and rain gardens.

While potentially necessary, generating more public money to support a built infrastructure, which is likely to deteriorate over time, represents a solution that lacks true incentives for reducing the pollution in the first place. Instead, I’d rather support the “green” infrastructure established to store and filter water in the first place!

Let’s dedicate funding and elbow grease toward planting more trees, bushes, grasses and even weeds around waterways to absorb and filter as much water as possible. Let’s do the same in our own yards. Then add rain barrels and rain gardens to store water rushing from roads and rooftops and slow its release into rivers and streams.

It is worth exploring whether collective and collaborative actions taken by towns, businesses and ordinary citizens like you and me might serve as an easy, affordable fix to a big problem that has the potential to rob future generations of clean water. After all of that gets in motion, we can reassess the situation.

Regardless of solutions big or small, my hope – lost in recent headlines – returned a little after the rain barrel event in my town. It’s clear – the Camp Hill School District students understand the connection between our natural landscape and local waterways.

And because they represent the town’s future business owners, public servants, mothers and fathers — and conservation leaders, — I am counting on their knowledge and enthusiasm and especially their creativity to fulfill my vision of enjoying a lifestyle that harmonizes with, not alienates, the natural environment. I know we can achieve it, one rain barrel at a time.

Sara Kaplaniak lives and writes in Pennsylvania, where she reduces, reuses and recycles along with her husband and two kids. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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