Let’s Keep our Rainwater Here.



When rain falls, two things can happen to it.  It can infiltrate the soil and become an asset to local life, or it can run off and become a liability to life downstream.

James M. Patchett & Gerould S. Wilhelm

The Ecology and Culture of Water, July 1999

Land use planners and engineers have, for the most part, designed swales, drainage ditches, culverts, and storm sewers to convey water as fast and efficiently as possible away from where it falls.  More and more inpenetrable surfaces mean more more and more dirty stormwater is directed into streams and rivers, carrying with it excessive fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides from our over treated lawns, oil and cadmium from our roads and driveways, grass clippings, leaves, and pet wastes from our yards,  and roof granules from our roofs.  (In the case of Elgin, the city where I live, all these contaminants go into the Fox River, from which we get our drinking water.)

Rain needs to be retained where it falls; rain and stormwater should be looked upon as a resource, not as something that has to be removed from the site as quickly as possible.

What can we do?

Let me count the ways:

(This is a long piece and I have decided to break it up into 3 parts)


1. Rain can be harvested, captured in rain barrels or cisterns.

Utilitarian and inexpensive–scavenged rain barrels made from containers that held car washing soap.

Rain Barrel painted by Stacy Reynolds for SWAN’s
(South West Area Neighbors) entry into a city-wide competition 4 years ago.

Rain Barrels may be purchased at cost ($75) from the City of Elgin.  They are also available through Conservation@Home, at local stores, and on-line.

One can attach a hose to the spigot or fill a watering can and then water potted plants or vegetable gardens with free saved water.  How much did you spend watering your vegetable garden or potted plants last year?  (In order to access spigot, rain barrels need to be elevated on a stone platform of some sort.)

2.  Plant a rain garden at the end of your downspouts to infiltrate rainwater from your roof.   Rain garden-a garden of native plants that grow in nature where the ground is wet in spring and dry in summer and fall.  Two downspouts empty into an area at the back northwest corner of my house, filled with  Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) in bloom, Blue Flag Iris (Iris virginica shrevei), Fowl Meadow Grass (Glyceria striata), and Brown Fox Sedge (Carex vulpinoidea).  I have deep prairie soil, as do most people that live in neighborhoods built before WWII, and the water penetrates easily and deeply.

This rain garden sprung up by itself at the other end of my house.  Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) rise up in the back, while Showy Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia speciosa var. sullivantii) grows in front.

A more elaborate rain garden for a client in Geneva.

A rain garden that infiltrates rain runoff diverted from a driveway.

Many soils in our area are mostly clay and do not readily absorb rainwater.  The rain garden or vegetated swale then needs to be engineered.  The depression is lined first with a gravel drainage layer topped with a layer of organic and sand amended topsoil.  Dave, an engineer, designed his rain garden to infiltrate rain water that comes from his neighbor’s downspouts.  The spectacular Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is in bloom.

3. What used to be referred to as a drainage ditch may become a Vegetated Swale by planting it with deep-rooted native plants that will absorb much of the rainwater that runs through it.

  • Vegetated swale in unincorporated Elgin

Vegetated swale in Batavia

My neighborhood, unfortunately, still has combination sanitary and storm sewers that has resulted in terrible basement floods.  The federal government has now mandated that all such systems be separated, which is now happening, 1 street at a time. (The estimated cost in just my neighborhood, according to Mayor Kaptain, is $40 M.) In the meantime, the city applied for and won a grant to build 34 vegetated swales in the parkways in my neighborhood.  The news was received with great enthusiasm and 34 people volunteered to maintain a garden on their parkway.  The first one was built last fall and planted with neighborhood volunteers–a good time was had by all.

Neighbors planting vegetated swale in my neighborhood last fall.

Curb cut from street to direct rain water into swale.

Median strip in entrance road at Elgin Community College has been turned into a vegetated swale, September 2012.

To be continued:

  • Sources are Stormwater Systems by Jim Patchett and Tom Price in Sustainable Urbanism by Douglas Farr, 2008
  • The Ecology and Culture of Water by James M. Patchett & Gerould S. Wilhelm, July 1999

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6 Responses to Let’s Keep our Rainwater Here.

  1. ValerieH March 28, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

    I really enjoyed this article. I have been wanting a rain garden since I heard a lecture about it at PrairieFest in 2007.

  2. Mary Alice Masonick March 28, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

    Thanks for sharing these beautiful images and for inspiring people to grow native plants that love and hold on to rain.

    Surprisingly, many of these water loving plants can tolerate extended dry periods as well. Ah, the versatility of our Illinois natives!

  3. Pat Terry March 29, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

    Very interesting. I’d like to try some of the ideas but am first sending it around to interested folks at our church. Denise Sandoval helped us plant a native garden bed last fall and, if the rabbits don’t finish it off, we’re excitedly awaiting the first blooms. (They ate the heads off of our purple coneflowers and showy black-eyed susans that were still in bloom when we planted.)

  4. Don Zouras April 2, 2013 at 7:22 am #

    I am so pleased, but jealous, that Elgin is encouraging the building of vegetated swales in the parkways. I live in Bartlett and here they persecute me for having planted natives in the parkway in front of my house. The battle has reached a ridiculous stalemate which has resulted in the Village coming out and mowing the parkway to the dirt twice a year.
    Meanwhile, Bartlett struggles with flooding every time there is a heavy rain.

  5. Holly April 7, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

    Pat, I love our rain barrels. . . the only problem is when they’re full, we’re getting a lot of rain so we don’t need to water. When we’re in a drought, the rain barrels are quickly depleted. 🙁

  6. Allen Skillicorn April 30, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    What species of garden plants do you reccomend and where can I get them?

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