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Alger Heights neighborhood launches new model for stormwater management

Plaster Creek Stewards is in the process of installing 20 curb-cut rain gardens in the Alger Heights neighborhood.
Plaster Creek Stewards and community building stormwater management

Plaster Creek Stewards and community building stormwater management /Courtesy of Plaster Creek Stewards of Calvin College

Underwriting support from:
Alger Heights stormwater management

Alger Heights stormwater management /Courtesy of Plaster Creek Stewards of Calvin College

Alger Heights stormwater management

Alger Heights stormwater management /Courtesy of Plaster Creek Stewards of Calvin College


I know that you are tired of hearing about it

But most repeat the same theme over and over again,

It’s as if they were trying to refine what seems so strange

And off and important to them.


It’s done by everybody

Because each must work out what is before them over and over again

Because that is their personal tiny miracle.

- Five, by La Dispute


Built for human needs, our infrastructure fails to consider most other components of the natural ecosystems we inhabit. All, or nearly all, of our roads and buildings have impervious surfaces whose footprints block rainwater infiltration. This means that water is taken away from plants, groundwater reservoirs and soil organisms, and pushed- along with any pollutants- directly into rivers and lakes. The health of land and water are diminished with less and less room for regeneration. Changing the way cities are developed, the architecture of buildings, and our personal lifestyles can have a positive impact on the environment, and start to mitigate these negative effects we’ve had on the ecosystems to which we are so closely tied.

But you’ve heard all this before.

The perils of climate change, pollution and clear-cutting virgin forests are real… and really overwhelming to any one person. It often seems like the same solutions are suggested over and over, and it’s easy for wheels to start spinning when the earth we’re trying to care for was already altered and damaged when we inherited it. For better or for worse, cities, railways, quarries and farm fields have been established. And reverting Grand Rapids to some sort of "zero impact" way of life like that of the Ottawa, Chippewa or Pottawatomie is probably not viable. But neither are we in stasis. We live in a dynamic environment. The land is changing just as it has for billions of years, and cities are expanding, degrading and rebuilding. If we who are able each cared for the space around us, we’d contribute to a healthier street, neighborhood and watershed. There is room and thought for truly sustainable infrastructure. On a small scale, we can improve the health of watersheds in Grand Rapids by managing storm water runoff.

Storm water runoff is at the center of many pollution issues in the Plaster Creek watershed, making it the most polluted in western Michigan and a priority for restoration. Because the Plaster Creek watershed largely comprises urban and suburban areas, any green infrastructure must take this setting into account. Accordingly, curb-cut rain gardens effectively help manage surface water in urban and suburban neighborhoods, and create beautiful, natural spaces in these man-made environments.

In addition to capturing rainwater that falls into its basin, a curb-cut rain garden captures storm water off the street (or parking lot, etc.), where it soaks into the ground over a period of several minutes to hours, depending on the precipitation's intensity. This surface runoff, which has picked up various pollutants and litter along the way, would otherwise flow into storm drains that lead directly to Plaster Creek, which empties into the Grand River, which ends in Lake Michigan. By diverting and capturing the runoff, curb-cut rain gardens filter out pollutants and allow storm water to cool as it soaks into the ground. They also reduce flash flooding, which is not only dangerous for humans, but also destructive to river and riparian ecology. Warm water entering the creek in these fast, high volumes erodes the banks and creates harsh conditions for its macroinvertebrate communities, ultimately decreasing biodiversity.

The keys to the whole system- to capturing this water and holding garden soils in place- are in the plants. Michigan’s native plants have long roots that break up soil and allow water to percolate, are adapted to the region and need minimal care, and provide food and habitat to native pollinators. Curb-cut rain gardens are landscaped according to each plant’s ability to tolerate sun, shade, drought, standing water or a combination of these conditions. For example, because swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) can tolerate full sun and water, it is planted near the lowest parts of the rain garden’s basin. Penn sedge (Carex pennsylvanica), which thrives in shade and drier conditions, is often planted around the top border of the garden. For a few days’ work and some yearly maintenance, curb-cut rain gardens can have a measureable impact on the health of Plaster Creek and its watershed.

Plaster Creek Stewards is in the process of installing 20 curb-cut rain gardens in the Alger Heights neighborhood. Site locations are chosen using multiple criteria, including size of the parkway (the space between street and sidewalk), its location relative to storm drains and the flow path of storm water runoff. The last Plaster Creek Stewards Rapidian article featured Deanna Geelhoed and Micah Warners, students at Calvin College, and the high school Green Teams. By the end of summer, the Plaster Creek Green Team had successfully installed six rain gardens in Alger Heights, in addition to collecting native seeds, removing invasive plants and raising seedlings for future projects. On September 26, with the help of many tireless volunteers, Plaster Creek Stewards installed six more rain gardens in Alger Heights!

With more than half of the 20 proposed curb-cut rain gardens already installed, Alger Heights is quickly becoming a beacon for a new way of understanding our relationship to the environment, and reconciling past hurts to the land we must give to the next generation.

If you’re interested in learning more about Plaster Creek Stewards, the curb-cut rain gardens in Alger Heights and other exciting projects, look here, and like us on Facebook! 

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