Green Street Stewards: Keeping the keepers of clean storm runoff shipshape

Ian Kennelly is a Green Street Steward as part of his volunteer efforts for the Surfrider Foundation. (KATU)

Treating storm water runoff in Portland before it makes its way into the sewer proper is the idea behind the city of Portland’s Green Street Program.

Keeping that water flowing into and out of some 1,800 bioswales and catchment bays gets a big boost from Green Street Steward volunteers.

To the untrained eye, bioswales and catchment bays look like sunken gardens. You can find them upstream from corner storm grates all over Portland.

“Using our green infrastructure protects our storm water system,” said Amy Chomowicz of the Bureau of Environmental Services. “It prevents water from going into the pipes, helps preserve capacity and helps save us money, too, because we don't have to replace our pipes quite as often.”

About five years ago a resident who noticed one of the bioswales in their neighborhood called the city and asked how they could help -- and the Green Street Steward program was born.

“We can only come to each facility once every three to four months,” said Svetlana Pell, who coordinates the steward program. “So between our visits it's important to get some volunteer help. Volunteers, or stewards as we call them, perform simple activities like picking up trash, open the openings, especially this time of year when the leaves are falling down and blocking the entrance.”

Pell said the bioswales capture storm water from the street and slowly infiltrate it in to the ground, treating the water as resource rather than waste.

“It’s mimicking nature by infiltrating it on the spot instead of running it into the river or into our storm water treatment plant," she said.

Finding the right plants -- those that can tolerate heavy rain in the fall and winter and the heat of summer and act as natural filters, is problematic.

“We have to pick something that will stay evergreen and be drought-tolerant in the summer and can hold moisture during the wintertime; that's what makes it tricky,” she said.

The city partners with businesses and organizations who often provide volunteers for the program. Ian Kennelly, who volunteers through the Surfrider Foundation, is one such volunteer.

“We pick up trash and keep our streets clean, which keeps trash out of our waterways; it keeps it out of the Willamette River, that keeps it out of the Columbia River and that keeps it out of the ocean and off our beaches,” Kennelly said.

Kennelly is just one of about 140 volunteers helping to maintain 350 bioswales and green infrastructures throughout Portland.

It's easy to become a Green Street Steward, city officials say, and you can adopt one of the facilities to maintain or join with others to keep them clean and healthy.

A detailed how-to brochure on the Green Street Steward program.

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