By Robert Miller CTINSIDER
In the past, the rain going down the waterspout carried whatever it had picked up along the way — lawn fertilizer, oil-soaked road sand, litter, itsy-bitsy spiders and more.
This water then went into lakes and ponds, polluting them. Streams carried the runoff to rivers and on to Long Island Sound. It was a contaminated throwaway.
“It was treated as garbage,’’ said Mike Jastremski, water conservation director of the Cornwall-based Housatonic Valley Association.
But in recent years, there has been a turn toward gathering in that rush of rainwater and beautifying the landscape at the same time. And thus, rain gardens are coming to the fore.
“We are seeing more of an interest in them, for a variety of reasons,’’ said Cynthia Rabinowitz, executive director of the Northwest Conservation District, which promotes soil and water conservation projects in 34 towns in Litchfield County and northern Fairfield County.
“All the state conservation districts are promoting them,’’ Rabinowitz said. “Nearly every town in the state has a garden club and they’re promoting them. The state’s master gardener program is involved.’’
Rain gardens are becoming a “very popular and valuable way to do a variety of things,’’ said Eric Thomas, an environmental analyst with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s watershed management division.
Carol Haskins, executive director of the Pomperaug River Watershed Coalition — which protects that river’s watershed land in Southbury, Woodbury and Bethlehem — said her group recently got a good response from residents who want to install rain barrels under their downspouts.
“Going from rain barrels to rain gardens would be the next step,’’ she said.
Loosely defined, a rain garden is an area dug slightly below the surrounding area that can catch and collect rain rather than let it flow away by going down driveways and sidewalks.
They do several environmentally useful things. Rain gardens collect storm water, stopping erosion, and keep that water from carrying pollution downstream.
The water that collects in a rain garden seeps back into the ground. The soil beneath them will filter out pollutants and bacteria that the rain might carry. That water, in turn, can help replenish groundwater supplies.
And by filling the garden with native species, rain gardens also provide plants that help pollinating bees and butterflies. They also promote biodiversity.
“I like to call them multifunctional,’’ Rabinowitz said.
As the state becomes more developed, all these attributes become more valuable.
“As we build more impervious surfaces, there’s more runoff,’’ said David Dickson, interim director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Land Use Education and Research, or CLEAR.
Climate change is also making the state’s weather more erratic – with more flash floods and more flash droughts. Rain gardens are one more way to even out the rainfall, collecting rain from heavy storms and putting it back into the ground when it gets dry.
To help homeowners create their own rain gardens, UConn has created a website at https://nemo.uconn.edu/raingardens,
It has also created a rain garden app to download at https://rgapp.nemo.uconn.edu
“Any homeowner can do it on a weekend,’’ Dickson said.
But keep in mind these caveats: Like any garden, rain gardens need care, said Jastremski of the Housatonic Valley Association. That means weeding and keeping invasive plants at bay.
In some cases, Jastremski said, the rain gardens also may collect sediment, which must be occasionally cleaned away so the garden won’t get clogged.
“They have to be designed well and maintained well,’’ he said
Along with homeowners, towns are also starting to install rain gardens around public buildings, and so are private developers.
In Bethel, the Northwest Conservation District is collaborating with the town Parks and Recreation Department to build two rain gardens. The first at Bennett Memorial Park was finished last fall.
The second rain garden will be built at nearby Meckauer Park.
In both cases, the aim is to limit storm runoff from flowing into Limekiln Brook.
Rabinowitz of the Northwest Conservation District said the rain garden at Bennett Memorial Park is catching the rain from the roof of the park’s pavilion – rain that had been eroding the nearby pavement.
The rain garden is doing what it’s supposed to do – collect the runoff and prevent erosions, she said.
“It’s working,’’ she said.
Rain gardens are a shift in how residents – and towns – think about rain, Jastremski said. Rather than rain-rain-go-away, everyone is now beginning to see rain as a natural resource that will be increasingly valuable in the years ahead.
“We want to see every drop we can get back into the ground,’ he said.