The middle-schoolers gawk as cranes swing two enormous concrete tanks, bigger than school buses, into the ground at the site of the new Resilience Research Center on Badger Road. All the rain and snowmelt will be captured on-site and funneled to the hulking underground tanks, project director Kate Stalker explains to the kids. The water will then be used throughout the growing season to irrigate four acres of organic crops.
From sky to tank to ground, instead of from sky to gutter to storm sewer to lake. Not one drop of rainwater leaves the property.
"They'll never look at stormwater the same way again," says Stalker, who was determined that the kids understand the scope and impact of this radically innovative rainwater repurposing system from the get-go.
The students are part of the inaugural class at Badger Rock Middle School, an anchor tenant of the soon-to-be-completed Resilience Research Center, 501 E. Badger Rd. Those four acres of gardens are part of their curriculum. And their curriculum is grounded in sustainability principles, including the wise use of precious resources.
Surplus rainwater, or stormwater, as the city engineers like to call it, is a significant problem in Madison, and Dane County in general. It causes erosion and flooding, and is the number-two reason (after agricultural runoff) that our lakes are filled with stinky algae, invasive milfoil and big, bad carp.
But the city, county and building industry have been slow to embrace large-scale initiatives to address the issue. Rain gardens and other landscape elements designed to redirect rain cannot capture all the "problem water." Leave it to cities like Portland and Seattle to creatively design entire streetscapes and neighborhoods that accept rainwater as a resource, rather than reject it as a problem. Here in Madison, we are still, by and large, putting it in a pipe and sending it straight to the lakes.
But the work going on at the Resilience Research Center might change that. The four-acre, 60,000-square-foot signature project of the Center for Resilient Cities, a strategic consulting firm out of Milwaukee that focuses on green infrastructure, is a working model of the principles they preach, including intensive urban agriculture, sustainable schooling, community services, energy efficiency, and water conservation and management. The idea is to show, rather than tell, communities how to plan for the future.
"Everything we do is measured and analyzed," says Stalker. "Anybody can come and see the approach we take and learn how it was beneficial and what it cost. We are a public forum for best practices."
There is much to be learned. Take the irrigation plan. Strategic landscaping funnels rainwater to plants, not gutters - Plan A. Each of the underground tanks can capture 22,000 gallons, and three smaller tanks boost the site's total water capacity to 86,000. That's Plan B. The center expects to meet its heavy watering needs without drawing on city water, but just in case, a well was drilled to supply the organic crops with untreated water in times of drought. That's Plan C. The center never expects to use city water for irrigation, though it will supply the drinking and washing needs of tenants all along.
"That's resilience," says Stalker, of the need for contingency planning. And it's essential for cities facing a new era of resource scarcity, extreme weather and economic uncertainty.
One entity paying attention is the Madison Water Utility. General Manager Tom Heikkinen calls the large-scale harvesting of rainwater for landscape and garden irrigation "a very, very good practice."
If every building watered its landscaping in this way, says Heikkinen, it would relieve pressure on the city's groaning water infrastructure.
"We'd probably need to drill fewer wells," he theorizes. "That means using less energy and spending less money." At times of peak consumption - the hottest summer months - using rainwater instead of city water for irrigation purposes would help the Water Utility continue to meet its conservation goals, says Heikkinen.
Another benefit would be reducing the demand on the sandstone aquifer from which Dane County gets 100% of its drinking water. It is not in danger of being depleted anytime soon, at least in terms of human needs. But as Dane County grows, more wells are being drilled, and increased pumping alters the flow of groundwater. Groundwater migrates toward wells instead of downward through the watershed as it should.
As a result, says University of Wisconsin-Extension hydrogeologist Ken Bradbury, springs are drying up, stream levels are falling, and wetland habitats are changing. Perhaps most disturbing is the "zone of depression" under Lake Mendota. Water is migrating away from the lakebed springs, toward an increasing number of area wells. As it flows upward in this odd way, it picks up more contaminants.
"We're drawing a lot of water out from under the lake, now," Bradbury concedes.
The lakes could use more water coming up from below, and less from stormwater discharge outlets above. Kate Stalker paints a picture of the way Madison might look if every new development implemented a net-zero stormwater management plan.
"Our lakes would be so much healthier," she says. "We'd prevent flooding of low-lying areas. We'd have a vast and permanent supply of drinking water and a continuously replenished aquifer."
To learn more about one of the nation's most innovative rainwater harvesting systems, as well as other model projects, sign up for the Oct. 25 site tour sponsored by the local chapter of the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance, a group of architects, planners, builders and others interested in sustainable building practices. Reservations required, and space is limited; see wgba.shuttlepod.org for more information.