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Courtesy photo
Students from Blackhawk Christian Junior-Senior High School plant a rain garden on school grounds.

Rain gardens result in fewer toads, ice rinks in backyards

After a heavy rain, the grassy area behind the baseball diamonds near Croninger Elementary School would have standing water that seeped into the backyards of many of the neighbors.

When officials from City Utilities went out to inspect the area to see whether it could benefit from a rain garden, the standing water was high enough that ducks were swimming in it as if it were a pond.

Sue Ensley’s backyard is directly behind Croninger. In the winter, she said, you could ice skate on the standing water. Her yard would also be invaded by toads, as the tadpoles completed their life cycle in the standing water, she said.

A rain garden installed in the area behind Croninger is one of the largest of 20 public gardens the city has installed through public partnerships. From the city’s monitoring, the rain garden appears to have greatly reduced the amount of standing water in the area and in the neighbor’s backyards, said Anne Marie Smrchek, a professional engineer and stormwater water manager with City Utilities.

“Long term, it may not stop the (standing water) completely, but it has reduced it significantly,” she said.

Ensley said her backyard still has standing water after a heavy rain because of valleys, but it’s not nearly as bad as before the rain garden was installed.

“Absolutely it is much improved,” she said. “We’re really pleased with it.”

The rain garden program began as a supplemental environmental project the city started in the face of $960,000 in fines as part of its $240 million settlement reached in 2007 with the federal government for allowing sewage to flow into local rivers. The city was able to reduce the fines to $420,000 by agreeing to invest money in supplemental environmental projects. The remainder of the settlement was to be used to upgrade the city’s sewer system and reduce the nearly 1 billion gallons of sewage that flow into local rivers by 90 percent.

The rain gardens serve as a long-term control of runoff water and look almost like a ditch filled with plants, flowers and shrubbery. Plants with deeper roots are planted in the gardens to absorb more water. They also aid in removing pollutants before water reaches the city’s water system.

A variety of plants can be planted, such as black-eyed Susans, trees and shrubs, depending on the look a homeowner or site is going for, Smrchek said.

“Some are more formal looking, while others are more fun, with flowers, native plants that draw insects and birds,” Smrchek said.

All but four of the 20 public rain gardens have been installed at schools.

Bob Freeborn, a biology teacher at Blackhawk Christian Junior-Senior High School, saw the signs around the city about the rain garden program and inquired about how the school could install one. In the spring of last year, students, with the help of a company contracting with the city, planted nearly 600 plants.

“The whole thing has really flourished,” Freeborn said.

But not without required care and maintenance. Freeborn was watering the rain garden daily during last summer’s drought, and he weeds the garden over the summer when students aren’t around to help.

Several gardens were also planted on the property of Fort Wayne Community Schools, including one at Croninger Elementary School. A rain garden at Lakeside Middle School had to be pulled out and redone because its care and maintenance fell by the wayside.

“We are happy to partner with the city. If they’re seeing a benefit, then that’s a good thing,” said Krista Stockman, district spokeswoman. “We need to make sure that we have people in place that are going to take care of (the rain garden).”

Freeborn uses the garden to teach students about wetlands and about the garden’s effects on the city’s water problems caused by the combined sewer and sanitary system. The downspouts from the school’s gymnasium have been diverted into the garden, so Freeborn has students tracking how much water goes into the garden after a rain, he said. “It’s referenced frequently as a teaching tool,” he said. “It’s really been a fun little project.”

sarah.janssen@jg.net

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