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Rain Barrels Help Residents Save Money & the Chesapeake Bay

JEFF PETERSON is flanked by his two rain barrels outside of his Falls Church home. (Photo: Patricia Leslie)

Just in time for Earth Day on April 22 comes a new city program designed for residents to cut utility bills and save water.

Falls Church residents can act now to improve water quality and stormwater management, all with a tool that is the focus of a new program, “RainSmart,” developed by the partnership of the Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS) and the City of Falls Church.

The program offers residents grants of $100 for two rain barrels (or $50 for one) and up to $1,500, or half the costs, for the design and installation of rain gardens and other conservation projects which have stormwater benefits.

May 4 is the deadline to apply for rain gardens’ grants, according to Jeff Peterson, a longtime VPIS board member who spearheaded the project for the organization.

“Stormwater management increasingly is an issue for the city and for residents,” Peterson said. “We continue hearing from people in town who have an issue with stormwater.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says stormwater is harmful because it carries materials and chemicals washed into storm drains from streets, gutters, neighborhoods, parking lots and construction sites.

According to the EPA, this type of pollution is significant because stormwater is untreated and flows directly to a lake, river, or the ocean carrying pollutants like pesticides, bacteria and chemicals through city streets and straight to waters like the Chesapeake Bay.

Food wrappers, cigarette butts, sewage overflow, bacteria from pet waste, used motor oil, paint and construction debris can all be found in stormwater, the agency says.

Fairfax County says that because rain water is untreated, it is naturally softer than municipal water and is even better for washing cars, besides nurturing indoor and outdoor plants.

Residents can use the grants to buy rain barrels at local retailers or online, or build their own barrels and learn how to install and maintain them at workshops hosted by the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District.

Water stored in rain barrels won’t flow into streams and dump in the Chesapeake, but will flow into the ground and replenish groundwater supplies, according to VPIS. Also, by decreasing the volume of storm runoff, rain barrels help moderate stream erosion and pollution.

The Petersons have two rain barrels which stop water from flowing downhill into their neighbor’s basement, and they use the collected water to nourish their vegetable and flower garden.

They said they are very happy with the rain barrels they’ve had for several years, finding them especially useful in the summer when it gets really dry. “They are a good way to keep gardens healthy and they help save money,” Peterson said.

Jason Widstrom, a stormwater management engineer for Falls Church, said a mandate from the Commonwealth of Virginia requires Falls Church to help decrease pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Rain barrels are one means to do it.

“We are obligated to the state because stormwater treatment to the Chesapeake Bay is impaired,” Widstrom said. Nutrients in the water lead to algae growth which can carry toxins that kill fish, causing illnesses among humans including skin rashes and stomach disorders.

Widstrom sees the grants as a way to incentivize homeowners to help work with the city and reduce pollution, and he hopes one neighborhood’s rain barrel will lead to more.

Rain barrel funding will be considered on a continuing basis. $10,000 is the amount Falls Church budgeted for the program this year with hopes that more will be budgeted for next year, Widstrom added.

Peterson said the society’s very successful relationship with the city on the neighborhood tree program led to the latest collaboration.

“We [VPIS] felt like we could help the city by working with people around town to take steps” to improve stormwater management.

Falls Church let Arlington do the groundwork and research for the project, Peterson said. Arlington has distributed 4,000 barrels to collect water.

Information, grant applications and approved garden contractors may be found at the VPIS website under “environment.” Only city residents are eligible.

Around town residents can find several city rain gardens including one down the street from the Petersons at Buxton Road and Tyson Drive.

For the Earth, it’s better to go natural. “Every little bit we can do helps,” Widstrom said.

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The cost to build a barrel is $55 or they are available pre-made for $65 at the Packard Center in Annandale on April 21 and 22.
Advance reservations four days out are required for these upcoming Saturday rain barrel workshops and may be made at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/soil-water-conservation.

April 14, 10 a.m. -noon., Green Acres Center, 4401 Sideburn Rd, Fairfax

May 12, 9 – 11 a.m., AlexRenew, 1800 Limerick Street, Alexandria

May 19, 10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., Walker Nature Center, 11450 Glade Dr., Reston

June 9, 10 a.m. – noon, Fairlington Community Center, 3309 S. Stafford St., Arlington

Questions may be directed to rainsmartfallschurch@gmail.com or rainbarrel@fairfaxcounty.gov and for more information, go to vpis.org/environment/rainsmart-program or fairfaxcounty.gov/nvswcd/rainbarrels.htm or call 703-324-1460.