Friday, July 13, 2012

Turning the Tide on Stormwater Overflow

ECA Program Manager Zach Popkin gives the scoop on Philly's new Rain Check residential stormwater initiative.

Most people don’t often think about sewers, rainwater, and where water goes after a flush of the loo, but the folks at the water department sure do. It’s a big problem for cities because water is a limited resource and when sewers become overburdened, it can make for a troublesome mix with drinking water, which ultimately takes energy and money to clean.

To mitigate stormwater overflow issues, cities have increasingly relied on public green infrastructure tools such as bump-outs, planters, rain gardens, green roofs, bioswales and tree trenches (such as the one pictured here in Philadelphia's Columbus Square, which can hold up to 7100 gallons of rainwater per incident).

Philadelphia, in particular, has now begun taking this approach to people's homes with a new innovative residential program called Rain Check, which involves an initiative from the Philadelphia Water Department, training and implementation from the Energy Coordinating Agency, and engagement with the city's homeowners and residents.

Thus, Home Science caught up with the ECA's Program Manager for Rain Check, Zachary Popkin, to get the word on how it's all going to work:

What's the main purpose of the Rain Check program?

Here in the city of Philadelphia, because the city is so old, we have somewhat of an antiquated sewer system. Two-thirds of the city has what we call a combined sewer system. And what that means is that the sewer pipes in our streets have a combination of stormwater from rain events combined with our waste water from our homes. And what happens is that when it rains and they reach their capacity, we have these overflows. These stormwater overflows are flowing into our waterways, and it creates pollution, it creates erosion and flooding, and basically degrades the quality of our water in terms of the cleanliness of the water as well as habitats for ecosystems, and making our waterfronts liveable and enjoyable. Through this program we hope to address the issues of both stormwater quantity and quality management and we hope to make a happier city and more friendly waterfronts.

More specifically, since this effects all Philadelphians, what sort of role can homeowners and tenants play to help? How does Rain Check allow them to participate?

The goal of Rain Check is to treat the first inch of rain from storm events on the resident's site. So we have five green tools from Rain Check. We have a downspout planter box, we have a rain garden, we have the depaving of impervious surface - so if you have asphalt or concrete we can remove that to encourage the water to naturally infiltrate back into the ground - and we have porous paving options, which is basically still hard surfaces but allows the water to penetrate into the ground. And lastly we have just your average yard tree, which helps capture stormwater but also the root systems help to filter the water.

Homeowners who are participating in the program can receive one of the tools I mentioned, plus a yard tree. So say they can get a planter and a yard tree, or they can get a rain garden and a yard tree. The way the funding works is that the homeowner will be responsible for just a small copay, and the water department will provide funding for the remaining 80-90 percent. So it's a drastically reduced cost that the homeowner will pay to get their green tool.

Since this blog is also concerned with green jobs and building a sustainable workforce, in every sense, describe the type of jobs you'll be creating and the backgrounds of people being trained for this new career field of green infrastructure.

Green tool training at the ECA
Sure. We're managing our stormwater management process similar to the same way we do our energy audit process, where we have the energy audit up front, then we have the weatherization work. At the ECA in the EnergyWorks program we do a quality assurance inspection at the end of that process. You have a three process program with the inspection, the remodeling work, and the quality assurance assessment.

With the Rain Check program we've modeled that process similarly. We've trained assessors to go out and do stormwater assessments. We're requiring that stormwater assessors have their Building Performance Institute Analyst (BPI) accreditation - that basically helps them better determine stormwater issues or opportunities as it applies to the properties and homes.

For our installers, we've trained a greater variety of installers because there's a little bit more in the variety of green tools. So the types of installers are going to be general contractors and landscapers. And we have masonry contractors for the depaving portions of the program.

Do you see this kind of work as a growth field in the future, and if so, what are the indications of that?

Absolutely. Philadelphia has become a leader in the method that it has come to address its stormwater problems. Some other cities are choosing to address the issue in the back end by increasing the capacity of pipes and at the water treatment plants. What Philadelphia is choosing to do is a little bit more innovative, by treating the problem at the source, by treating it on site. So not only are we treating the stormwater through these practices, but we're helping to beautify our city, because the planter boxes and rain gardens and trees add an aesthetic value - not only are we resolving stormwater problems but we are able to green and beautify our city through these programs.

And since Philadelphia has acted as a leader in this method for managing stormwater, we're hoping that Rain Check, and Philadelphia's stormwater program overall, which is called Green City, Clean Waters, can serve as a model for cities throughout the nation as they address their stormwater issues.

And in a cost effective way.

Exactly, particularly in Philadelphia because of the scope of our sewer system. It's prohibitive cost-wise to rehabilitate all of our sewer systems and by completely trying to address the issue of stormwater by increasing the capacity of our plants. What Philadelphia needs to do to address its type of water problems is a more comprehensive approach. While we can do some of the other things such as increasing capacity of sewer systems and treatment plants, doing things like stream restoration and public outreach, we're also going to be doing things like green infrastructure and low impact development, such as the green tools we talked about.

Sounds like a win win solution. Thanks for your time.

Thank you.

Blogger's note: The Rain Check program is in pilot phase, and currently not registering additional residents. Further opportunities to join will be forthcoming. For more on this and other programs from the Philadelphia Water Department visit
Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. Pretty cool. I'm surprised there hasn't been more articles about this in the local news.

    Joseph H.

  2. Very interesting article. I'm trying to figure out how to best use rainwater in my garden. I have too many downspouts because of a huge garage covering so much of my property. I'm looking into rain barrels but I need so many of them.

  3. In addition, building a rain garden would vastly reduce stormwater overflow. It filters runoff pollution and lessens the potential of home flooding.

  4. Interesting! This indeed is a very useful information! Stormwater now has so much use for me. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  5. I'm sure a city like Seattle would have mastered the art of high efficiency inlet filters to help deal with the excess stormwater runoff!