Every time a heavy rainstorm hits the city, raw sewage from Philadelphia’s obsolete sewer system overflows into the rivers.
Think about that for a minute. Are you grossed out yet?
Most modern sewer systems have separate pipes for storm water and raw sewage, but Philadelphia, like many older American cities, has a combined system.
During severe thunderstorms, the deluge of water “overwhelms the carrying capacity of the line and we can’t process all that water at once,” said Liz Robinson, the executive director of the Energy Coordinating Agency, a local non-profit that helps low-income households and others in the Philadelphia region to save energy. “Philadelphia is not currently in compliance with the Clean Water Act,” Robinson added.
Digging up the entire city and laying bigger pipes would cost about $5 billion, Robinson said.
Instead, the city wants to take a much less expensive route by finding ways to hold the water at the surface for 24 hours or so after a big storm, giving the system time to process the water at a rate it can handle.
Part of this strategy means getting Philadelphia residents involved in managing storm water—using rain barrels, green roofs, and landscaping features like trees and rain gardens.
A simple solution
“Rain barrels are one of the easiest strategies for residents to use,” Robinson said.
As part of this effort, the Water Department has contracted with ECA to install 550 rain barrels on residential properties in 2011, and another 2,000 in 2012, according to Aaron Slater, who is coordinating the program for ECA.
This is a modified version of a program the Water Department sponsored a few years ago, where they provided free rain barrels to residents who attended rain barrel workshops. Pam Chaplin-Loebell of Mt. Airy received a barrel through that program and paid her roofer to install it for her. She uses it to water ornamental plants.
This time, the Water Department is going a step further. ECA’s contract includes funding for installation. Residents sign up for a workshop, where they learn about the city’s stormwater management program. Then a contractor hired by ECA comes out and installs a barrel on their property.
Robinson said they looked into buying rain barrels from a garden supplier, but decided to make the barrels here in Philadelphia out of recycled 55-gallon food-grade drums. This way, she said, they’re creating local jobs and re-using a waste product.
How it works
When a barrel is installed, water from a downspout is diverted into the barrel through fine mesh that will prevent mosquitoes from breeding in the water. When the barrel is full, excess water runs through an overflow hose into the storm drain. A spigot at the bottom of the barrel can be used to water plants.
Unlike the hose hooked up to the city water supply, there is very little water pressure—Chaplin-Loebell said water drains out of her barrel slowly. Other water barrel users have said placing the barrel on cinder blocks means gravity pushes the water out of the spigot more quickly.
The water in the barrels can be used for watering plants and washing cars, while keeping residents’ water bills down and keeping the water out of the sewer system. Because it’s not clean water, the ECA cautions that it shouldn’t be given to pets or used to grow food crops.
Robinson predicts that the rain barrel program and the Water Department’s other efforts to find sustainable ways to manage stormwater will create a lush, greener city, with a denser canopy of trees.
“We’ve got the most ambitious storm water management plan in the country,” Robinson said.
How to get a rain barrel
There has been no lack of interest from city residents. The first workshop was held at Germantown’s Center in the Park in May, and another was held there on Aug. 2. Workshops have also been held in other neighborhoods across the city. Slater said nearly 100 barrels have been installed so far, some of them in the Northwest Philly neighborhoods of Manayunk, Roxborough, Mt. Airy, Germantown, Chestnut Hill and East Falls.
My bright blue rain barrel has been in place for a few weeks now. People walking by stop and ask me about it, and many want to know if it’s still possible to get a barrel.
The answer is yes. Slater and his colleagues at ECA are still collecting names of people who want a barrel, and more workshops are being scheduled. If they can’t satisfy all interested residents this year, there’s always next year’s program.
You can sign up here to be informed about upcoming workshops here.
Your garden, your water bill, and our local rivers will thank you.