Perspectives Online

Historic Look, Modern Technology. Extension, state aquariums team demonstrates best coastal storm-water control practices. By Art Latham

To water this cypress forest display, Roanoke Island's North Carolina Aquarium uses an indoor irrigation system fed with storm water harvested and stored in rainwater-collection cisterns.
Photo by Art Latham

Everything old, as the song goes, is new again. Well, maybe not everything, but this is: To help conserve every precious drop of our available water supplies, a team that includes North Carolina Cooperative Extension storm-water specialists and personnel from our state's three aquariums has launched a low-impact development (LID) education and demonstration campaign.

LID is a development strategy that incorporates several best management practices (BMPs), using natural features to enhance storm-water pollutant removal and prevent sediment from entering water sources.

The team demonstrates LID BMPs that work to homeowners, governments and developers. And sometimes what works actually is an update of time-proven methods such as centuries-old "water harvesting" techniques - like rain barrels and cisterns - that incorporate new technologies to store rainwater.

Pat McNeese (top, left) and Gwendy Hoyle of Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium examine plants in a bog garden, a storm-water diversion strategy. These future rain barrels (middle), formerly pickle barrels, were donated to Extension by Mt. Olive Pickle Co. to be recycled for water harvesting. Retro-styled cisterns (bottom) stand at the entrance to Roanoke Island Aquarium.
Photo by Art Latham
For instance, since June 2005, the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island (RI) has prominently displayed four functional 2,500-gallon rainwater-collection cisterns that look as if they could have been rolled into place from an Outer Banks lifesaving station. Three of the cisterns were designed to resemble those used for generations along the salty Banks. To conform to the historic look, the cisterns' interior blue plastic tanks are wrapped in cedar boards and are topped with galvanized metal. More than 300,000 aquarium guests annually learn about the cisterns from signs strategically placed at the tanks.

Kathy Mitchell, RI's horticulturist, worked with a local contractor to develop the innovative plan to harvest and store enough water for the aquarium's indoor irrigation and outdoor landscaping needs after a state-mandated 10 percent water-use reduction.

Now storm water that once poured unused off 7,382 square feet of the aquarium's roof is stored in the cisterns to irrigate RI's nearly 4,000-square-foot conservatory and for other uses. Due to the cisterns, Mitchell increased irrigation from 1,350 to 1,700 gallons per week with no increased demand on the municipal water system. The aquarium saved almost 5,000 gallons by using harvested rainwater for landscape irrigation and cleaning and filling an outdoor sculpture pond. Cistern overflow pours into a nearby rain garden, where educational signs tell visitors how they can use demonstrated native-planted landscape features to reduce storm-water runoff at home.

And this autumn, to collect roof rainwater, Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium (PKS) will install five 2,500-gallon cisterns, also with a historic look.

A $35,000 grant from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources'Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program funded the RI system's design and construction, and the related educational signs. Joanne Harcke, conservation and research coordinator at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, worked with Mitchell on the APNEP grant.

Dr. Nancy White, then a Cooperative Extension landscape ecologist, now director of the UNC Coastal Studies Institute in Manteo, advised the aquarium team from the planning process' beginnings in 2002, along with Dr. Bill Hunt, storm-water expert in the Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department at N.C. State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and BAE graduate and engineer Jonathan Smith.

"Nancy was enormously helpful in the project, which has provided a model for the projects that have come after. So was Susan Ruiz-Evans at the Dare County Extension office, who is a terrific resource and always available," says Harcke, who holds a master's degree from N.C. State.

Harcke also landed a pollution-control grant worth $27,622, from the state Division of Water Quality. The grant funded materials for two aquarium-hosted LID workshops by Cooperative Extension specialists - at PKS in April and at RI in May - as well as scholarships to the Second Annual National Low Impact Development Conference in Wilmington in March.

During the conference, Extension specialists made presentations and led LID tours also funded by the DWQ grant. They included area environmental agents Dwane Jones, based in Green County, and Charles Humphrey, based in Craven County. Both have actively advocated cistern use and helped install cisterns for more than a year.

The national conference drew hundreds of out-of-state and local engineers and officials. The later PKS workshop drew attendees from Duke University Marine Labs, Onslow County Planning and Development Department and Carteret Craven Crossroads. The Roanoke Island Aquarium session's participants hailed from Virginia coastal city and county environmental divisions and from Nags Head, Colington Harbor Homeowners Association, Gates and Currituck counties and the UNC Institute for the Environment.

The Extension-state aquariums relationship is symbiotic. "We didn't have the experts to hold workshops, but Extension did," Harcke says. "And Extension and other agencies interested in promoting 'green' building techniques have access to aquarium demonstration sites during area workshops. Because the water-harvesting system at Roanoke Island was retrofitted to an existing facility, it clearly demonstrates that others can do the same."

Jason Wright, an Extension coastal storm-water associate who coordinates the workshops, explains the need to demonstrate LID techniques to a wide range of audiences.

"A lot of people talk about LID," he says, "but the public is not fully aware of its potential. It's an evolving science and we want everybody on the same page. With these workshops, we're taking the projects we've done and educating people about installation and how they function."

Water harvesting isn't the only storm-water-related BMP Extension experts promote along the coast. They continue to encourage and construct such BMPs as backyard and public rain gardens that capture fast-moving, polluted rainwater from impermeable surfaces like roofs, roads and parking lots, helping prevent damaging erosion and cleansing polluted water before it can enter streams.

Sharing information on such projects often generates a ripple effect. For instance, after the spring PKS LID workshop, Carteret County Master Gardeners, working with Anne Edwards, Extension's Carteret County horticultural agent, stayed to help install a bog garden.

"It's really more of a wetland garden," says Gwendy Hoyle, PKS horticulturist. "It helps with infiltration from parking lot runoff. We also have a small rain garden that I installed in what was essentially a drainage ditch."

Other PKS storm-water BMPs - in addition to the planned cistern' installations - include a constructed wetland and a large drainage ditch that serves as an overflow from a pond and conduit between two wetland areas.

The constructed area includes wetland plants, such as cypress, hardy hibiscus, buttonbush, river birch, wax myrtle and various grasses, including a switchgrass cultivar.

"It's very pretty, and to my surprise has been relatively maintenance-free," Hoyle says. "We even have snakes, turtles, butterflies and an occasional nutria that all make their homes in the area."

Kathy Mitchell (left), Bill Hunt, Robert McClendon and Joanne Harcke display a visitor-education sign at Roanoke Island.
Photo by Art Latham
A Monarch Waystation butterfly garden like those already in place at RI and Fort Fisher aquariums will stabilize soil, and a much larger rain garden project and should be under way soon, she says.

"The rain garden will help control much more runoff from the asphalt parking area, and that hopefully will stop some significant undercutting erosion in the lot," Hoyle says.

Other aquarium LID workshop team members include Extension's Ruiz-Evans, who discussed integrating vegetation into coastal LIDs; Robert McClendon, sustainable design specialist with the UNC Coastal Studies Institute; and John McCord, CSI's education programs coordinator. New Hanover County partners included Georgette Scott of Coastal Storm-Water Management Solutions and Charlotte Glen, an Extension urban storm-water specialist.

All continue to teach and learn valuable new technologies.

"We don't want to have LID practices by developers and others get ahead of the research," says Extension's Wright. "As we do more work, we want to get that information out as fast as we can to the engineering and development communities."

And that includes LID research, along with its message that the best technologies, such as water-harvesting cisterns, may be time-honored.