No More Floods: The Science behind Rain Gardens

Hurricane Irene was an extremely large and destructive hurricane that hit the east coast of the United States hard during September 2011. Threats of possible flooding as side-effects of Irene’s wrath caused panic amongst faculty and students on Bucknell’s campus. Due to Bucknell’s close proximity to the Susquehanna River, administrators forced Bucknell students in downhill residence halls to seek alternative accommodations. The destruction of Irene was apparent in the startling photos of entire streets in two feet of water. People were seen in kayaks on 6th street. I was simply blown away.

Fast-forward four years, and I am at the PERC Sustainability Symposium. One of the research posters that stood out to me was Rain Gardens at Bucknell University.  Rain gardens can be an effective method of stormwater management to mitigate flooding. A rain garden (as seen in the picture below) is a garden which takes advantage of rainfall and stormwater runoff in its design and plant selection. They are usually positioned near buildings in order to give the stormwater more time to infiltrate at the source of the runoff and not gain momentum downhill.


A rain garden beside a building

The science behind the experiment is pretty neat. Three different methods of testing were completed to see how effective a rain garden was at increasing infiltration and limiting flooding.  A visual test showed the presence of standing water, which is a sign that the rain garden mitigated runoff. Another test used an infiltrometer and compared the saturation levels in the ground of a rain garden to those of normal ground. The rain garden did significantly better overall. 

Sustainability is about thinking of new ways of doing things with fewer resources. I was really glad I attended this talk and was able to read about the work of a Bucknell student who looked at rain gardens. Please enjoy a short video from the 2011 Bucknell flood, in which I make a short appearance:

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