Green Infrastructure: One Water Quality Solution

Green Infrastructure: One Water Quality Solution

by Alyssa Pietraszek, communications intern

Stormwater runoff graphic
An impermeable surface is a solid surface that will not allow water to penetrate through such as asphalt, concrete, stone, brick, roofing, or extremely compacted ground.

Gray Infrastructure: What’s The Problem?
In many populated areas today, a system of connecting gutters, pipes, and tunnels, collectively referred to as gray infrastructure, is commonly used to drain stormwater runoff.  While this runoff is sometimes directed to water treatment facilities, it is usually funneled into rivers or streams, which lead directly to nearby water bodies. As the runoff travels through the man-made gray infrastructure, it picks up the numerous pollutants that are present on the impermeable surfaces typical of populated areas, such as oil and gasoline, plastic debris, animal droppings, and fertilizer.

As a result, the now-contaminated runoff empties into nearby water bodies, frequently lowering their water quality, causing flooding, and having an adverse effect on aquaculture, tourism, and other local, water-centered industries. As storms increase in both intensity and frequency as a result of climate change, and rising sea levels lead to coastal inundation, the flooding in these sensitive areas is only predicted to get worse over time. 

Green Infrastructure: Why Go Green?
Green infrastructure is the utilization of nature-based solutions to try and filter runoff and return it to the Earth where it falls. These solutions range from residential rain gardens and neighborhood green spaces to permeable pavements and bioswales, which enable the filtration, and collection or absorption of rainwater and snowmelt directly into the ground instead of overloading nearby rivers or streams. These features can help reduce the amount of runoff that empties into nearby water bodies, reducing flooding in the area and further downstream. 

One feature of green infrastructure is an increase of green space to a region, often including a number of trees. While uptaking some of the extra water from runoff, these trees also provide additional shade to the area, helping to alleviate the effects of the “heat island” phenomena characteristic of urban centers with large amounts of heat-absorbing asphalt, concrete, and brick. In addition to improving water quality, these nature-based solutions also often increase the aesthetic appeal of an area and provide open spaces for recreational activities. 

Green Infrastructure In Rhode Island
Green infrastructure can be identified at many sites across Rhode Island, appearing in both urban areas like Providence and more rural areas like Charlestown. These projects implement several different approaches in the treatment and management of runoff, including stormwater treatment, shoreline stabilization, pavement, infrastructure removal, and wetland restoration.

A rain garden in bloom!

Exemplary rain gardens have been built in public spaces in several cities, including Providence, Newport, Portsmouth, and Charlestown, and rain barrels are becoming more common in residential neighborhoods, such as the Pleasant Valley neighborhood in Providence. In addition, green roofs, permeable pavements, bioremediation ponds, and tree pits with curb cuts have been installed at various locations, including Dexter Street and the RIPTA parking lot on Elmwood Avenue in Providence, the Newport Transportation and Visitor’s Center on America’s Cup Avenue, and college campuses (e.g. the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island School of Design, and Providence College) across the state.

In addition to constructed green infrastructure, efforts have also been made to remove pavements and impermeable surfaces that inhibit the infiltration of runoff into the ground and, in coastal areas, help contribute to erosion. These projects range from the removal of part of the Barrington Beach parking lot and subsequent planting of beach grass in the same area, the depaving of Second Beach in Middletown and installation of green barriers to filter runoff, and the depaving and installation of filter strips to clean runoff at the ends of several streets ending at the water, including streets in Warwick, Warren, Bristol, North Kingstown, and Tiverton. 

What YOU Can Do

In the words of Save the Bay Coastkeeper Dave Prescott, “We are all part of the problem, but we are also part of the solution.” So, what can YOU do to protect and preserve Narragansett Bay?

A monarch butterfly stops at a rain garden in Charlestown, Rhode Island.
  • Spread the word: Several green infrastructure projects in Rhode Island, such as the rain gardens on Charlestown town property and at Ninigret Park, were designed with an educational purpose in mind. By visiting these sites, Rhode Island residents can learn about the relatively easy design and implementation of these low-maintenance rain gardens, so they can build them in their own backyards!
  • Clean up after yourself and your pets: Picking up trash (e.g. water bottles, cigarette butts, food wrappers, etc.) and cleaning up after your dog can prevent the plastic debris and animal droppings from running into nearby water sources. This is an easy way to help maintain the local water quality for us and other animals to enjoy!
  • Build a rain garden: Rain gardens can help to reduce runoff by collecting and filtering rainwater draining from your driveway, roof, etc. and enabling its absorption back into the ground. The local plant species placed inside of these gardens thrive with the added nutrients originating from fertilizer and organic material, which would normally pollute a nearby waterbody. Local pollinators, such as monarch butterflies and honeybees, benefit from these plants as well!
  • Collect rainwater for later use: Rainwater collected in barrels at the end of downspouts on residential properties can be used for various outdoor purposes, such as watering the garden or lawn, helping to save water and reducing the amount of runoff. Watch the video below for more tips on installing your own rain barrel: 

*Please note:  Be sure to access the Johnson & Wales University Harborside Campus through the main entrance on Harborside Blvd. Your GPS may suggest taking Ernest Street to JWU’s Shipyard Street entrance, but that route requires a key card for entry.  

From Route I-95 North or South, take Exit 18 (Thurbers Avenue). Head downhill on Thurbers Avenue to US Route 1A (Allens Avenue). Turn right onto Allens Ave. Continue southbound on Allens Ave. into Cranston, where Allens Ave. becomes Narragansett Blvd. Turn left onto Harborside Blvd. at the traffic light by the Shell gas station. Follow Harborside Blvd. through the Johnson & Wales Harborside Campus. At the end of Harborside Blvd., turn right onto Save The Bay Drive. Save The Bay Drive becomes a circular, one-way roadway as you approach the Bay Center. Parking is available in four guest lots after you pass the main building. Enter the building through the main entrance.