(Guest post by Jeremy Hoffman, Climate & Earth Scientist, and Jennifer Guild, Manager, Communications and Curiosity at the Science Museum of Virginia)

As the world has warmed up, precipitation events have also become more flashy and intense. In fact, we’re already seeing these impacts in Richmond—our rainiest events have gotten rainier and the long-term trend toward more rain overall has become apparent, with 2018 ending up as the second-rainiest year on record. With this increase in extreme rainfall occurrences also comes record levels of pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the Chesapeake Bay.

Why does this happen? One reason is due to our human landscapes acting like a “gray funnel.”

Imagine a plastic funnel with smooth sides, a very wide mouth and a very small drainage hole. Rainwater picks up nitrogen and phosphorus as it runs off parking lots, roads, buildings and other impermeable surfaces (the large opening of the funnel). As it rushes into our stormwater drains (the funnel’s small side), it can overwhelm the sewer and water treatment systems, prohibiting them from properly filtering the water. Those pollutants then make their way into the James River and Chesapeake Bay, putting numerous plant and animal species at risk by disrupting the ecosystem.

What can we do to change this? We need to reimagine our urban and suburban areas to become “green filters.”

Now imagine a coffee can with a very small hole punched in the bottom that drips into a paper towel roll filled with balled up coffee filters. Precipitation is captured (in the coffee can), absorbed (by the paper towel roll) or filtered (by the coffee filters), and slowly returned into the groundwater system (once it makes it to the end of the paper towel roll). When this happens, it greatly reduces the impact of pollutants carried by stormwater on the river or bay.

For nearly a decade, the Science Museum of Virginia has been working to change its urban campus from a gray funnel into a green filter through various infrastructure strategies installed on the building and around the campus—a green roof, tree-well filter boxes, a rain garden, pervious concrete and rainwater collection cisterns. Over the next three years, the Museum is increasing its commitment to rain and stormwater management best practices. Not only is the Museum installing the next generation of green technology on its campus, but the organization will also work to increase access to information and resources so the broader community can learn about the ecological connection between the infrastructure we build and its impacts on our waterways.

Aerial Photo showing the front parking lot that will be turned into Civic Green Space – taken by Sky Shots Photography – Tom Stiles.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) recently awarded the Museum a grant to enhance and expand its green infrastructure efforts. Two of the most ambitious and visible projects include converting nearly three acres of paved surface parking lot into civic green space and installing an advanced bioretention system to clean and retain the rainwater that falls onto a nearly one-acre-large parking deck being built beside the Museum.

The Science Museum of Virginia’s green roof. In the background, is the lot where the parking deck will go.

The Museum looks at both the civic green space and parking deck through the lens of needing better ways to manage stormwater. It’s looking at urban development differently by asking, “how can this be done greener?” The Museum sees opportunities to make a positive impact through responsible and environmentally aware land-use design decisions.

After these major projects are completed in about three years, the Museum hopes that seeing the green infrastructure in action, as well as learning how to build it, will encourage others—individuals, businesses, schools, developers, county governments and more—to look for ways to make green ideas a reality.

Better understanding the connection between new or renovated infrastructure and the health of our waterways is the first step in turning our sprawling gray funnels into lush green filters.

Rainkeepers Exhibit at the Science Museum of Virginia