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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

"Pretty Cool and Pretty Significant" - A Parish Community Center Works to Reduce Stormwater Runoff

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

Most of the time, water is beautiful when it flows together. A stream combines with another to form a river, which flows into a lake, then maybe into a larger river, and eventually it flows into an ocean. Sometimes, however, water flowing together isn't so beautiful. That's the case with a combined sewer system.

In a combined sewer system, stormwater and sewage water from homes and businesses flow together. When that system is overwhelmed by too much water, like after a storm, it can overflow into local waterways, bringing with it raw sewage. That becomes a water pollution problem for everyone. For the folks at the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center in Detroit, it also created a challenge and an opportunity.

Steve Wasko serves as the executive director and minister of service at the Center. He shared the story of how the organization dealt with Detroit’s mandate to reduce their stormwater runoff, benefiting the environment, the faith of the community, and the education of the youth and adults taking part in the Center’s activities.

Participants in a stormwater reduction project at St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center (photo provided by Steve Wasko)

A Steep Price to Pay

Detroit has been working to reduce the amount of overflow water from its combine sewer system, which means reducing the amount of sewage that goes into the City's rivers and ultimately into the Great Lakes. Part of that effort includes a fee on organizations and businesses, based on an estimate of how much stormwater runs off their properties. However, these entities can lower their fee by implementing practices and projects that would reduce their stormwater runoff.

When the Community Resource Center became a nonprofit organization associated with St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Catholic Parish, it started using the parish’s former school for its work. Doing so also meant taking on the stormwater fee for the property, which could have possibly reached $24,000 per year.

Wasko’s reaction, not surprisingly, was, “Where are we going to get $24,000?!”

“The Water Board, to their credit, made available to us and other faith based institutions in the city, a professional engineering consultancy,” Wasko said, “that really scoured our campus and looked for what would be opportunities to mitigate that drainage fee. And the way to do that would be to implement stormwater management practices.” The engineers identified nine zones where the Center could implement practices to reduce stormwater runoff, including special paving of the parking lots and the creation of rain gardens on the property. Unfortunately, the cost of implementing those practices was also too high for the Center.

Turning Challenge into Opportunity

By “the grace of God,” Wasko said, the Center was able to connect with partners it might not have otherwise collaborated with, like the environmental group Friends of the Rouge, the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter, and Detroit Future City. Together, they created what Wasko called “an authentic educational experience, because most of what we do at our community center is provide a lot of really enriching activities for youth and families to be engaged in.”

That educational experience engaged middle and high school students, as well as adult learners, “where the participants will learn all aspects of the hydration cycle,” Wasko said, including how that cycle is ”impacted by urban situations like pavement and pollution, and then what can be done to change that in terms of the flow of water, right down to designing and testing all those sorts of things (like) different surfaces, soils, medium, and the like, as well as plantings that would allow for a fully operational rain garden or retention or detention pond somewhere on our campus.”

Through these educational experiences, the participants have implemented three of the nine stormwater practices originally identified by the engineers, diverting 382,000 gallons of water each year into rain gardens and away from the combined sewer system. Wasko described the rain gardens as “things of beauty in terms of the natural habitat.” But, he also said they have benefits beyond their environmental impact. “Creating this authentic educational experience has had educational value. It's had economic value for participants, because we definitely want this to spin off in activities that they can do in their neighborhood groups or their own households, their own backyards, their own schools. It's had an employment opportunity for the adult workforce development participants.”

Following the Example of St. Francis

Because the Center is parish-based, the faith of the community serves as an important motivator for the work being done there. Wasko connected the faith of the community and his own faith journey to the life and example of St. Francis of Assisi. Wasko is a professed secular Franciscan, which means he's a member of a worldwide group of ordained and lay people who are seeking to follow the example of St. Francis. “Most people, if they know anything about St. Francis, it's the statue in front of a local church or monument or cemetery or institution. He's the saint that has the bird on his shoulder, right? And indeed, he has a whole cluster of his major writings and thoughts and opinions,” Wasko said, “(about) the congruence of humans and nature.”

St. Francis’ influence extends to Pope Francis, who took his name from the Saint and who has written extensively about the environment, including his encyclical, Laudato Si, subtitled, “On care for our common home.”

“It all ties together,” Wasko said. “It's kind of remarkable to be able to do something that has kind of a lofty connection, if you will, but doing it right on the streets and in neighborhoods and in river tributaries in the city of Detroit.”

Caring for the Great Lakes One River Watershed at a Time

“The Rouge River watershed is a very complex web of tributaries and streams and rivers, not just a single river, that covers much of the western part of the city of Detroit and much of the Western Wayne County suburbs as well as Oakland County. And right down the street from us,” Wasko said, “we walked the kids down to the local park, where one of the branches of the Rouge River flows through. And you can see this combined sewer overflow, and that's designed to put this raw sewage, the excess water, including what would be raw sewage right into this River, which flows right into the Detroit River."

Wasko reflected on the 382,000 gallons that the Center's projects have taken out of the combined sewer system each year. “We're having an impact right on the amount of water that would have to be released on that very combined sewer overflow, right in the river that runs through the major public park in our very neighborhood. And that's pretty cool. And pretty significant, I'd like to think.”

A previous article covered the green infrastruture work of Ms. Nicole Brown and Detroit Future City (one of the collaborators with St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center)


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