This month as part of our 50 Stories for Our 50th we are celebrating our Green Infrastructure work. This blog focuses on one of our programs through our Green Infrastructure team, the Riversmart Homes Landscaping.

The RiverSmart program helps to reduce stormwater runoff to improve the quality of local streams and waterways by installing rain gardens, rain barrels, pervious pavers, and conservation landscaping. These features are often referred to as BMPs or Best Management Practices. Most of these BMPs are offered at very little cost to the homeowner. Through the program, homeowners are also educated about stormwater issues and local contractors are trained to install green infrastructure BMPs.

As part of the landscaping portion of RiverSmart Homes, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay oversees the implementation of rain gardens and conservation landscaping (BayScapes) on private residences within the District of Columbia, as well as the education of participating homeowners on stormwater issues and the role they may play in alleviating stormwater runoff on their properties.

Jordan Gochenaur, the Alliance’s D.C. Green Infrastructure Projects Associate, interviewed one of our RiverSmart contractors, William Ferrel. William is the Operations Leader at Clean Decisions, an organization that not only provides a job opportunity, but also an opportunity to redirect one’s life path, build a positive community, and learn the basics of employment as the start of training for a career

Bill Ferrel planting a bayscape in D.C.

Q: Can you tell us who you are and a little bit about yourself?

My name is William Ferrel, also known as “Uncle Bill” within the Clean Decisions family as well as our non-profit, “Changing Perceptions.” What I do here is – I am a mentor in the nonprofit portion, and I mentor returned citizens. Usually, guys that have been in for 20-30 years. A lot of the guys, like myself, changed their life after doing a lot of time and are looking for an opportunity to return to some kind of normality when it comes to living as productive citizens. 

My role at Clean Decisions is the operations director and the head of landscaping… We have five different revenue sources, events, general contracting, maintenance on five dc government buildings through janitorial services…. 

Q: Can you tell us about your connection to the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay?

My first experience with the Alliance was at the (Chesapeake Bay Watershed) Forum in 2017. I  had an opportunity to speak as a guest speaker, as well as, through just joining the Alliance through certification and opportunities to become a RiverSmart contractor. Trying to hone my skills through practicing, reading, studying, and watching videos of native plants, native gardens, bayscapes. Understanding the importance of protecting the watershed. That’s something I had no idea that I’d be a lover of flowers and plants, but it just ended up that way. So my relationship with the Alliance has been a smooth transition thanks to Jamie (Alberti),  (Savannah) Acostos, Kevin (Newman)*  and you and your continued participation and persistence in helping me hone my skills… to be better at what we do as far as serving the community through the RiverSmart Alliance project. 

*Jamie Alberti is the Alliance’s Green Infrastructure Program Director. Savannah Acosta and Kevin Newman work on the RiverSmart Homes program for DOEE

Q: Can you explain what RiverSmart is and your connection?

We are contractors of the RiverSmart Homes project. It’s five practices that the RiverSmart deals with as far as stormwater management. We do BayScapes and rain gardens. Other contractors do tree plantings, permeable pavement installation, and rain barrels. We have the training for rain barrels but, because of the interest in BayScaping and rain gardens, that’s where we focus our efforts.

Q: How long have you been working with Riversmart homes?

We’ve been working with Riversmart homes, four, going on five, years now. 

Q: Can you tell us about the experience that your crews have with Riversmart- what skills they pick up and what career paths they have?

We have a combination of several crews and a lot of times because of our social mission and the guys that we hire, it’s more of a labor induced relationship, but… once we begin to train and they begin to understand the different amendments of soil, especially for the rain gardens… understanding how the machine work, understanding the drains, the leveling.. a lot of the guys are interested in that. So when we choose the guys, we kind of separate from the guys who just want to come in and just kind of dig the gardens out, but the ones that are more interested in learning or just infatuated with “wow this fills with water and then it drains in 16 hours, and you have plants that actually grow… and survive in water”. They understand sun plants, partial shade, partial sun, understand the origination of native plants.. It’s just something that’s very interesting and, as I learn more, I am able to transfer that to the guys that are most interested in learning about what we do and the contribution that we make to DC as well as controlling the stormwater because of the damage that it makes to the watershed… And they can drive by a street, maybe with their parents, their children and look and say “wow, look thats a  Rudbeckia or St John’s Wort.. It doesn’t root-rot. It can go in the bottom of the rain garden…”

… Then we can introduce them to another company… Casey Trees (the nonprofit that plants trees through the RiverSmart Homes program) has pulled two of our guys just simply because of the work they were doing with the Alliance through Riversmart project through Clean Decision. 

Q: Do you have an example of a project that highlights the value of the work that you’ve been doing?

Jacob.. on 34th st in North East (DC). He had originally put in practice for a rain garden and then he went on to install a patio but was still eligible for a bayscape, so we were able to make a double bayscape for him on the south side of his walls, which was definitely sloping. He had an enormous 8-foot stump in the middle of the hill…, that was rotting in his yard and his wife is an avid gardener. We ended up planting around the stump and having it as a decorative ornament within the yard. She has actually gone out with some neighbors and they have started emulating her yard. And every time I go by I see her out there with the RiverSmart sign and she’s added something else to it. So that’s really encouraging. You know, when you see community jumping in and saying “okay this is what is happening- the water is draining off the hill coming to the curb, right (to the) sewer and there’s a lot of issues with water rising and flooding… and have a conversation saying this is what you can do, here’s the website, you can go in and pay a copay and to just have people all the time asking me about this and kind of bum-rushing the line because they feel they need to get in on this. 

Q: What are your hopes for DC and the Chesapeake Bay as a whole for the next 50 years? 

Well starting like right now, this moment, we have made tremendous progress. But it’s one neighborhood, one city at a time. We are just concerned right now for DC, but I think we are a front runner for Green Infrastructure and my hope is that this will continue… The key is to raise the consciousness of the residents and I think we can do this by continuing to install our green practices… continue to educate with the need for rain barrels, what we can do to protect the watershed, what we can do environmentally. Even in our landscaping… we use environmentally friendly ice melt, don’t use bleach anymore…  across the board we are becoming conscious… about using green products. Need to be conscious about what we are putting into the environment then in 50 years it won’t be so bad. 

Definitely want to thank the Alliance and the Riversmart program because through our involvement and our partnership, we have supplied employment opportunities for over 32 guys who more than likely would not have the opportunity to have employment.

For more information about RiverSmart, click here.