Nationally acclaimed RainWise program brings together mosques, employees and others through green, eco-friendly practices

Employee Roberta King in her RainWise garden.

Employee Roberta King in her RainWise garden.

In just a few years the RainWise program has become a national model for other organizations interested in effectively addressing combined sewer overflows (CSO). It’s well renowned for its fruitful community partnerships and by offering rebates that cover most of the installation costs for rain gardens and cisterns to qualifying property owners.

“It’s a great County collaboration with the City of Seattle to showcase our environmental efforts and Best-Run Government initiative,” said John Phillips, King County’s Program Manager for RainWise. “I get calls for more information weekly from all over the country.”

“This is being seen as one of the best CSO programs that provide an incentive to manage runoff on private property.”

Essentially, during a storm, the rain carries pollutants from hard surfaces like roofs, streets and driveways to local creeks and waterways. Here in King County that includes Lake Washington and Puget Sound. This stormwater can cause sewer overflows. Building a rain garden or adding a cistern to a large building or area helps control the impact this stormwater has on the environment.

The two work together to combat CSOs. A rain garden collects water from a roof downspout and allows it to safely soak into a shallow depression containing spongy soil for northwest plants to thrive in. A cistern is a large above-ground container, like a giant rain barrel, that collects 200 or more gallons of roof water. This reduces the amount of water in the sewer system and in summer can be used for watering. The beauty of the program is that rain gardens can be designed to fit different types or properties, and cisterns come in several sizes and shapes to fit in a variety of situations.

“We do measure the program by certain metrics, but also by how many happy customers we have,” said John. “We want happy clients and quality installations.”

The yellow zones represent the current RainWise rebate eligible basin areas.

The yellow zones represent the current RainWise rebate eligible basin areas.

To further the impact of innovative thinking and Lean principles, the program also includes many other community partners, organizations and contractors, in addition to a high-profile collaboration with Seattle Public Utilities. In Seattle, the program manages nearly 100 million gallons of runoff annually with green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) that contributes to CSOs. The long-term goal in Seattle is to manage 700 million gallons of runoff through GSI annually by 2025.

The program is open to all who qualify and is a unique way for King County to implement green, eco-friendly practices. From West Seattle and Rainier Valley to Ballard and Ravenna, residents are becoming interested in the RainWise program. Its willingness to partner with the community and flexibility in meeting their needs is making it a huge success.

Jo Sullivan, the RainWise public involvement lead in King County Wastewater Treatment Division, is especially excited for County employees to take advantage of the RainWise rebates, and blend their work life with beautiful landscaping and environmental protection practices.

“Many King County employees are eligible for RainWise,” said Jo. “Some have already gotten their rain gardens and cisterns installed and received their rebates.”

The program also relies on equity and social justice practices to engage residents. This has been largely achieved through places of worship. Individual homes may be eligible, but for communities with smaller square footage residences, churches provide an eco-friendly alternative. The large roof space is more appealing to contractors and can collect significantly more rainwater for the cisterns and gardens.

“We’ve worked with Peace Lutheran Church in West Seattle, and with several churches in south King County,” said Jo. “This includes a Tongan and Hispanic church in Highland Park, and Hope Academy and Alnoor Mosque in West Seattle.”

“It has been difficult to reach some groups due to language and cultural barriers, but we’ve been able to have success with multicultural communities by starting relationships through places of worship and working closely with the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle.”

To begin the RainWise process, individuals are invited to visit www.700milliongallons.org where they can check eligibility, find contractors, and learn about the rebate process. Rebates can cover up to 100% back of the cost and are paid within six to eight weeks of project completion. The average rebate has been around $4,500. Rain gardens and cisterns slow, capture and clean stormwater runoff so it doesn’t harm lakes, rivers, and streams. They also add color and beauty to homes and communities.

King County employees interested in learning more about the program can read an employee testimonial in the most recent Wastewater Treatment Division newsletter on the internal Department of Natural Parks and Resources employee site or contact jo.sullivan@kingcounty.gov.

For those who may not own a home, or lack property to participate in the RainWise program, Jo suggests working with a local community organization, like these churches, or volunteering with a non-profit to protect the environment.

“People can mulch and build up healthy soil, they can plant evergreens and native plants,” she said. “Helping to grow food can be a day-to-day level of doing more to help. There are lots of opportunities.”