With “Save the Rain,” Onondaga County Is a National Model for Sustainable Stormwater Management

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November 13, 2014
Onondaga County, NY's comprehensive stormwater management plan has aesthetic as well as environmental benefits, including additional trees and permeable-paved bike paths.
Onondaga County, NY's comprehensive stormwater management plan has aesthetic as well as environmental benefits, including additional trees and permeable-paved bike paths.

Shortly after her election in 2007, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney proposed a bold solution to address the county’s CSO issues: Rather than building more sewage treatment plants to meet the terms of a consent decree, Mahoney put a temporary hold on construction projects to determine the feasibility of incorporating the use of green infrastructure in combination with smart gray infrastructure.

Today, the Central New York community has become a national model for the use of environmentally sustainable solutions to reduce CSO pollution, and Mahoney is recognized as a pioneer in the field.

Addressing attendees at ASCE’s International Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure, held Nov. 6-8 in Long Beach, CA, Mahoney described the benefits and results of the county’s Save the Rain program,  a comprehensive stormwater management plan. Using a combination of natural and engineered systems to capture rainwater where it lands, the program has reduced the amount of stormwater that flows to storm drains, thereby reducing CSOs and improving the water quality of Onondaga Lake and its tributaries.

Features of the system include rain gardens, green roofs, bioswales, permeable pavement, rain barrels, and cisterns. Not only do these green systems improve water quality, but they enhance the aesthetic value of local streetscapes. Many streets which were lined by concrete sidewalks are now lined with street trees and other plantings that capture the rain and add value to the pedestrian’s experience walking or biking along the street.

One of the most welcome side benefits of the program, Mahoney says, was acceptance by community stakeholders. Instead of encountering community opposition as is frequently the case with traditional treatment plants — the Not In My Backyard response — community residents clamored to bring these sustainable solutions to their neighborhoods.

“I don’t think you’ll find very many examples of government infrastructure that people are begging to have happen on their streets,” Mahoney says.

See an Onondaga County video on its Save the Rain program.

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