As the population of the Charleston area continues to swell, protecting its natural resources will increasingly fall on the shoulders of individuals.
That’s especially the case when it comes to water.
In the Charleston area, managing water — from easing flooding, both from storms and rising seas, to curbing runoff and plastic pollution — has emerged as a top community issue for most municipalities.
In the past, people have relied on the government to make expensive infrastructure improvements, but individual property owners can do a lot to help out, as well.
Joshua Robinson, engineer and owner of Robinson Design Engineers, thinks solutions can be homegrown, too.
“Go to any city council meetings and the flooding and drainage problems only seem solvable by some large, multimillion dollar system. There’s not a lot of discussion what individuals can do,” says Robinson.
Robinson’s firm specializes in finding more natural, less expensive solutions for water management.
Local projects have been the eco-friendly subdivision Fox Hollow on James Island and the Tupelo Bend office park on Maybank Highway on Johns island.
Currently, Robinson Design is working on the 2,000-foot Smith Branch Daylighting project in Columbia. The initiative involves restoring a stream, which has been buried underground in two large pipes for 50 years, as part of a new, 20-acre city park.
Because of the differing factors, from topography and weather to density and open space, Robinson says there is no one-size-fits all solution.
“We live in a really unique landscape, so a lot of the solutions people talk about in other places may not necessarily be appropriate here,” says Robinson, noting the Lowcountry’s shallow water table and long, hot and humid summers.
Robinson says to effectively manage water, even at the home site scale, locals need to look at those features as opportunities, not problems.
Among the solutions for property owners, Robinson says, are rain barrels and cisterns, rain gardens, green roofs and tree planting, as well as paved surfaces that are either permeable or run off to permeable surfaces. All basically involve storing or retaining water from storms.
“Things like rain barrels and green roofs are often overlooked by engineers who are charged with doing watershed-wide studies. If you had even half of the buildings with rain barrels or cisterns and look at the volume of water removed from the street, it makes a huge difference, “ says Robinson.
He adds that green roofs can capture up to an inch and a half of rain alone.
On property with more land, rain gardens and trees also can be added to the mix.
“The way our landscape gets rid of the water is through evapotranspiration,” says Robinson, using a term that refers to trees and vegetation taking up water via root systems, storing and then releasing the moisture.
Robinson notes the benefits of trees don’t happen during the storm but before it.
“Trees are constantly drawing down water, so that when the rain storm comes, the soil has the capacity to store that rainfall. Whereas if you don’t have the trees and your shallow groundwater is close to the surface, then when it rains all the rainfall is converted to runoff right away,” says Robinson.
Master rain gardener
In recent years, management of water has emerged as one of the top topics for Clemson Extension’s Carolina Clear programs.
Every spring, between 300 and 550 people reserve discounted rain barrels ($68) offered by the tri-county program. Reservations are underway until May 27. Pick-ups are June 1 and 2.
Water Resources Extension Agent Kim Counts Morganello has played a key role in developing the rain gardening program and last year pitched the idea of a Master Rain Gardener program, much like the Master Gardener and Master Naturalist programs.
When Morganello first started holding trainings and workshops, she geared it more to the do-it-yourself homeowner. But, “I learned that there are people interested in this stuff but many want to pay someone to do it."
So Carolina Clear enlisted landscape architects and engineers to develop a two-tiered master rain garden course. One for professionals, such as engineers, who will get a certification. The other is less rigorous and will provide a letter of completion.
Instruction includes both the installation of barrels and cisterns and the installation of rain gardens.
The program features online instruction and a hands-on workshop to be held at Charleston Parks Conservancy’s Medway Community Garden on April 26.
When registration opened in February, offering 25 spots for professionals and 20 for nonprofessionals, Morganello didn’t know what to expect.
“But it completely filled up and we have a waiting list,” she says, adding participants hail from 25 different cities and towns in South Carolina, as well as one person from New Orleans.
The program will be offered again in the fall with the workshop being held in Beaufort.
“It’s been a ton of work, but it’s been super rewarding as well,” ” says Morganello.