DELTA’S RAIN GARDEN PROGRAM: Second Decade of Citizen Science in Action
Note to Reader:
In this issue of Waterbucket News, the Partnership for Water Sustainability features an article contributed by Deborah Jones, Rain Gardens Coordinator, Cougar Creek Steamkeepers. She is a resident of Delta, a city with a population of over 100,000 in the Fraser Valley area of the Metro Vancouver region.
Deborah Jones is a volunteer. For the past 15 years, she has been instrumental in the highly collaborative and very, very successful City of Delta rain garden program. She personifies an actionable vision driven by leadership that mobilizes people and partnerships.
The City of Delta is midway through the second decade of its rain garden program. Thus, Deborah Jones has the perspective of time as she looks back in order to look ahead. Her reflections are NOT about the technical details of creating rain gardens. Of far more value, her reflections transcend the ‘technical’ by focusing on the social (that is, people) dimension.
The latter ultimately determines the long-term success (or failure) of any program. Thus, the Partnership is today releasing a stand-alone document that builds on Deborah’s reflections and celebrates ‘the story behind the story’ of Delta’s rain garden program. The Partnership anticipates that the Delta story will be of province-wide interest.
“As cities venture into unfamiliar territory, fear of public embarrassment and fear of unfamiliar maintenance obligations may scuttle worthy projects – and that’s where committed volunteer groups can ease the way forward,” observes Deborah Jones, Rain Gardens Coordinator, Cougar Creek Streamkeepers
“Deborah Jones presents three key ideas. She also coins two acronyms to capture what she has learned through experience: FOPE and FOUMO,”states Kim Stephens, Waterbucket News Editor, and Executive Director, the Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia.
“To learn the wisdom behind these acronyms, scroll down!
“The article is more than acronyms. Deborah Jones concludes with an idea which is her call to action: “It is time to seek a better balance between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ approaches to stormwater management,” she says.
“Her article echoes and reinforces the theme articulated previously by Paul Chapman, Chair of the Vancouver Island Symposia Series on Water Stewardship: Build on the passion and actions of champions by building a culture of stewardship.”
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Author’s Perspective on Process and Time
“Looking back, I see now that the rain garden program evolved gradually, in the manner of any good garden — from early conversations in 1999, through the first rain garden in 2006, to the 29 school and community rain gardens in 2019,” Deborah Jones stated in a moment of reflection. The passage of time provides perspective, and opens eyes to the distance travelled as compared to the distance still to go to reach the destination.
“The City of Delta has a long history of working closely with the Cougar Creek Streamkeepers on projects that improve watershed conditions,” Mayor George Harvie, City of Delta.
“One example of this is the highly successful rain garden program, which has not only increased stormwater infiltration in our urban areas but has also created beautiful amenities in the community.
“The close collaboration between the City, the Streamkeepers, other volunteers and the Delta School District is what has allowed the rain garden program to persist for 15 years. I look forward to encouraging these types of projects in the years to come.”
An Implementation Perspective
“The ‘pioneering’ days of Delta’s rain garden program were a great time of trial and error. We enjoyed the creative challenges of figuring out ways to work around underground utilities, move water across sidewalks and down slopes, deal with unexpected high water tables and poor drainage, and predict which plants would survive the particular site conditions of each garden,” continued Dr. Sarah Howie, Office of Climate Action & Environment, City of Delta. Dr. Howie, a landscape architect, was originally hired by Delta Engineering and partnered with an engineer to form a rain garden design team. This was a precedent-setting action.
“The most interesting part of designing rain gardens was that every single garden was unique to the site, so there were no cookie-cutter designs. We always got to try something new. If it worked out, we would use the best elements in the next garden, in a process of continual refinement.
“The success of Delta’s rain garden program is largely thanks to the leadership and committed involvement of the Cougar Creek Streamkeepers. Their energetic and dedicated volunteers keep the rain gardens functional and beautiful, which gives the city confidence to do more of these types of projects.”
Delta’s Rain Garden Program: Citizen Science in Action
Rain Gardens Reduce Rainwater Runoff Volume
“The 29 school and community gardens perform well, annually diverting about 22 million litres of pavement or roof runoff into landscaping. Perhaps equally important, they’ve been a success with the public.
“And yet, despite successes, this enterprise has not been a completely comfortable fit for City officials and staff, especially engineers. Most have honed their grey infrastructure skills over years of training and experience, and now they’re being asked to install … gardens?!
“As cities venture into this unfamiliar territory, FOPE and FOUMO inevitably leap to the fore. FOPE (fear of public embarrassment) and FOUMO (fear of unfamiliar maintenance obligations) may even scuttle worthy projects — and that’s where committed volunteer groups can ease the way forward.”
FOPE – Fear of Public Embarrassment
“Catch basins and storm sewers are standardized, predictable and instantly up-to-speed once installed. Rain gardens, by contrast, are site-specific, not always predictable and don’t necessarily perform at their best until plants and soil biota have had time to establish.
“When any project is seen as ‘The City’, residents are quick to criticize or complain, elected officials are quick to pass these complaints to staff and staff are quick to ‘backpedal’ — especially if a project is a departure from past practice. No surprise, then, that many municipal officials and staff across all jurisdictions are subject to FOPE in relation to rain gardens.
“By contrast, when rain garden projects are seen as ‘volunteer streamkeepers and school kids’, residents are more willing to cut us some slack if there are issues at the outset.”
FOUMO – Fear of Unfamiliar Maintenance Obligations
“Maintaining grey infrastructure? Bring on the vactor trucks and other large mechanical equipment that spark joy in an engineer’s heart! And whether a catch basin is or isn’t pumped out on schedule, residents likely won’t notice.
“Caring for a rain garden? There’s little or no role for large mechanized equipment (which in any event causes soil compaction, the enemy of infiltration). Regular mulching, weeding and trimming are the order of the day, especially in a young rain garden. Not only are these techniques unfamiliar to most engineering staff, they’re also unappealing.
“Ultimately, the obvious solution to FOUMO is to make rain gardens joint projects of a city’s engineers, planners and gardeners/foresters:
“In 2006, Streamkeepers committed to maintaining the Cougar Canyon Elementary School Rain Garden. By extension, volunteers simply took on each additional rain garden as these were installed. This de facto situation was formalized in 2015 with the creation of the City of Delta’s Adopt-a-Rain-Garden Program, managed (as time allows) by the Engineering Department.
“As with FOPE, Delta can relax a bit about FOUMO because residents are willing to cut us volunteers some slack.”
What Makes for Successful Collaborative Rain Garden Projects?
“Like any good relationship, successful collaboration thrives on long-term commitment, by both local government and citizen volunteers.
“The City of Delta has shown political commitment at the highest levels, and staff commitment to valuing the input of frontline volunteers, trusting us to make suitable day-to-day maintenance decisions, and providing us with reasonable material support.
“Streamkeeper groups wanting to collaborate with local government on a rain garden should be sure they have the energy and personpower to stick with it for at the very least 3 years, while the garden gets established.”
Rain Gardens in a Masculine-Feminine Context
“The majority of municipal engineers are still men. Generally speaking, their approach to problem-solving still tends toward ‘masculine’ solutions that assert control and bestow prestige/power through the use of large and/or complex technologies. The larger and more complex, the better!
“The majority of volunteer rain gardeners are still women. Generally speaking, they are comfortable addressing problems with ‘soft’ solutions such as nurturing and accommodation. They tend to be more at ease with the idea of copying ‘Mother’ Nature’s example: soak up rainwater in spongy green landscapes that also provide habitat and aesthetics.
“Obviously, we need both approaches! In general though, rainwater management has been dominated by a masculine approach for centuries. It is time to seek a better balance. I doubt that the City of Delta has been thinking of rain gardens in this masculine-feminine context – but de facto, and to Delta’s credit, they’ve taken many steps toward that better balance.”
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