Philadelphia Water Department working with houses of worship

This blog post features a recent project and grants initiative from the Philadelphia Water Department, but stormwater is an issue across the state, particularly as rainfall events become more intense.  Many of our cities have combined sewer outflow.  Torrential rain events lead to boil water advisories in Pittsburgh many times each year, and they also have green infrastructure plans.  Ask your local water department about stormwater abatement, click through to some how-tos below, and check out this LWV newsletter about several projects, including at member congregation Grace Lutheran Church in State College.  Document your changes so you can tell the story in your congregation, share it with us, and even submit it to the national IPL Cool Congregations Challenge (for activity completed in one calendar year), or get certified through the National Wildlife Federation under their Sacred Grounds certification program. 

As the world gets warmer, cities will increasingly suffer from extreme heat events. The hard construction materials used to build cities soak up heat, causing an “urban heat-island effect.” Building new green spaces is one of the best ways to fight the worsening heat in cities.

The Philadelphia Water Department’s Green City, Clean Waters plan is a 25-year effort to manage stormwater in the city by building new green “tools” around the city. These tools include specially engineered trees, rain gardens, and planters. While the first priority of Green City, Clean Waters is to manage stormwater, new urban green spaces have a heat-reduction effect. Keep reading to learn about a church in Philadelphia that used a PWD grant to build green spaces on their property (first appeared on the Philly Watersheds blog). If you know a house of worship that’s interested, read more or contact Erin Williams.

[Read the original article on the Philadelphia Water Department blog]

Bethesda Presbyterian Church sits on a large plot of land in Northeast Philadelphia’s Bustleton neighborhood. The church’s monthly stormwater fees—higher than they would like—reflected the property’s large proportion of impervious surfaces, which put a considerable burden on the local sewers during storms. (More about how stormwater fees work.)

Fortunately, Joan Wilson, a church elder, was determined to reduce that stormwater charge.  “Financially, we needed to take a look at what could be done,” Joan said. “I prayed a lot about what we should do as a church.”

Those prayers were answered when a congregation member put her in touch members of the Philadelphia Water Department’s Stormwater Management Incentives Program (SMIP) team.  This program offers grants to non-residential property owners, including nonprofit institutions like houses of worship, interested in improving their property with green stormwater infrastructure investments.

While many green stormwater installations simply look like gardens to most people, they actually protect local waterways by soaking up polluted runoff from parking lots, roofs and other rain-repelling surfaces.  In addition to receiving grant funding and design assistance, participating houses of worship can get credits toward their stormwater fees—credits that, in the eyes of Bethesda Presbyterian, seemed heaven sent.

Bethesda’s Path to Stormwater Salvation
After getting approved for a SMIP grant, they called AKRF, an engineering firm that specializes in green projects and has offices on Walnut Street.  The firm’s experts came out to survey the church grounds and followed up by drafting plans for a rain garden.  After many visits and tweaking the plans to fit Bethesda’s needs, they settled on their goal: four rain gardens fed by downspouts that would funnel rain from the roof and parking lot.

[Learn about downspout planters
including how-to plans]

During every step, the church was intimately involved.

Every month, Joan updated her fellow church elders, held quarterly church-wide town hall meetings, and provided updates in the Beacon, their church bulletin. The Garden Committee—a natural fit for the effort—even worked alongside the engineers, picking plants and trees to be planted in the gardens.

It was through this process that Bethesda’s congregation began to see the project as something more than a way to save money on their water bill.  Green stormwater tools, they learned, come with extensive environmental benefits; their church’s rain gardens would help to keep over 35,000 gallons of polluted stormwater away from the Pennypack watershed during a typical, 1-inch rainstorm.  Over the course of a year, that adds up to more than 1.5 million gallons of runoff managed right there in the church gardens.

[Learn about a whole range of functional and good-looking
stormwater management
tools.  Includes handout link.]

Given that urban runoff represents one of the biggest sources of pollution impacting local rivers and creeks today, doing so much to help Philadelphia’s waterways is now a point of pride at Bethesda: their gardens cut back on pollution, minimize stream bank erosion, and reduce flooding.

‘For the Community We Serve’
On top of all the good the gardens are doing for local waterways—the source of Philadelphia’s drinking water—they’re also a beautiful, natural addition to the church grounds.

Buzzing with important pollinator species like honeybees and butterflies, the flower-filled bowls of landscaped green space even provide an opportunity for youth and other members of the community to learn about nature and the importance of protecting our water.

[Choose native plants that support birds, bees, and butterflies —
they are gifts for your human neigbhors, too.]

It wasn’t easy, but they learned so much along the way in creating this new green space in their community.

“Suddenly, I found myself being an environmental person, and a partial engineer!” Joan said. “I learned a lot in the beginning, and then I prayed some more.”

They also had a “wonderful team of people that really worked with Bethesda Church because they were committed to make this project work, and they went above and beyond.”

Joan’s faith played a huge role in keeping her motivated throughout the project.

“On this journey, I can say, as the Lord is my witness, that I felt God was leading us to do this, for this church, for the community that we serve, and for the broader population, because anyone who can positively influence the water supply—what’s going into our rivers, our streams—should do what they can,” said Joan.

“Every time I went, ‘Why did you allow yourself to get involved in this?’ the Lord put someone in my path to help me. He wanted this to happen here. I believed that in my heart, and I still do.”

Tips from a Green Stormwater Disciple
Joan has a few recommendations for other faith-based organizations thinking of installing green stormwater tools (often called GSI by engineers and developers) on their properties.

  • First, she says to make sure you know what you can truly commit to, financially.
  • She also reminds houses of worship to be flexible, remembering that there will be changes that impact cost and time frame.
  • Finally, she says, “Recognize that it’s not only savings, but environmentally how important this is to the community that we’re all a part of, and will continue to be, going forward…And pray!”

Did you know…
Green infrastructure grants are just one way that faith-based and nonprofit organizations can get help from the Philadelphia Water Department. Your house of worship can also get a 25-percent charity discount, just for being a nonprofit. More here.

To learn how you can get a grant for managing stormwater at your house of worship or nonprofit institution, read more or contact Erin Williams.

Get SMIP-inspired by checking out our Stormwater Pioneers honorees. These businesses and organizations were recognized by the City and the Philadelphia Water Department for using green stormwater investments to protect our waterways and improve their communities.