Young Advocates Sow Rain Garden and Stormwater Awareness

Young Advocates Sow Rain Garden and Stormwater Awareness

By Susan A. Smith and Sarah Galloway

While thousands of Pennsylvanians were celebrating the annual Celebrate Erie three day community event, young members of the Lake Erie-Allegheny Earth Force watershed group, Junior PA Lake Erie Watershed Association (JrPLEWA) were providing public education sessions – and showing off a rain garden full of bloom to over 350 interested citizens.

The rain garden project is located at City Hall, right in the center of downtown Erie and the Celebrate Erie festivities. JrPLEWA members used an EnviroScape portable interactive unit to demonstrate the impacts of non-point source pollution on our watershed, discussed urban and agricultural run-off as well as best management practices (BMPs). The display explained how rain gardens can be used to reduce stormwater run-off. Naturally, tours of the rain garden were also offered, sharing with visitors the stunning flowers and shrubs planted by this dynamic group of students. Visitors were guided through the yarrow, purple and yellow coneflowers, butterfly bushes, joe pye weed, liatris, black eyed susans, a dry creek bed, stepping stones, and huge granite blocks for seating. Ah, but we are getting ahead of the journey from a neglected, barren plot of dirt and weeds to this flowering garden oasis!

The city of Erie, in northwestern Pennsylvania, was working on a project to repair a basement roof and reseal the parking lot above it. The project included tearing up an existing patch of lawn, some small trees and two small flower beds. In the past JrPLEWA had worked with Sarah Galloway, the Sustainability Coordinator for the city of Erie, on other issues; they went again to Sarah when they saw the soil and grass being torn up.

Working with Sarah, the young people presented their big idea to the City: instead of replanting a plain patch of lawn, the students wanted to create a rain garden.Their patch of flowers and shrubs could accept and filter stormwater runoff, removing pollutants before sending the water down the storm drains and into our local Mill Creek and eventually into Lake Erie.

A rain garden forms a “bioretention area” by collecting water runoff and storing it, permitting it to be filtered and slowly absorbed by the soil. The bioretention concept is based on the hydrologic function of forest habitat, in which the forest produces a spongy litter layer that soaks up water and allows it to slowly penetrate the soil layer. This site for the rain garden was placed strategically to intercept water runoff from the adjacent parking lot.

Community rain garden and stormwater education actually began long before Celebrate Erie. While getting the City’s “OK” and starting the project meant educating City of Erie employees, the students didn’t actually get to speak to the Mayor directly until after the project was started. JrPLEWA did present to the Director of Public Works, Doug Mitchell and then eventually to Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott, City engineers and the Public Works Department in City Hall at a press conference in May. At the press conference the students, Sister Pat Lupo, and Sarah Galloway all spoke. Everyone at the City was very supportive and impressed with the students knowledge and enthusiasm for the project.

“We compiled color photographs of the plants to be used, drew a sketch of the project and worked with City Traffic Engineer, Dana Beck to digitize and format it all into a professional project design.We basically “Wow’d” them with the extent of our research, enthusiasm, and commitment.”

The project was made possible by a group of very dedicated students, and many partners who were added as the project grew.The students had drafted the message and mission as a group, as well as articulated a plan of action. They gathered research and garnered support from many in the community, including: the City of Erie Public Works Departement: including Bureau of Engineering, Jon Tushak, Jason Sayers and Dana Beck; Bureau of Parks; and Bureau of Streets; Sarah Galloway; Erie County Master Gardeners, Lucas McConnell, Sue Moyers, and others; and the PennState Cooperative Extension Urban Forester, Scott Sjolander, and the folks at Johnston’s Evergreen Nursery. (Erie County Master Gardeners are volunteers, all others are paid by their employers to provide education and/or services.) The students worked with City Hall employees to rototill the existing soil, dig and line a pond and creek bed, shape and plant flower beds, and add stepping stones and huge granite blocks for seating. The students were able to use the money that was originally ear-marked for reseeding the lawn for their rain garden expenses.

Awareness – of the project and of stormwater – grew as people on the street frequently stopped to talk to the students as they dug, arranged, planted and perfected their garden.

When one of the students was asked whether or not she thought that the project had had an impact on the public’s attitude towards stormwater, she answered: “Yes, it demonstrates that stormwater is a valuable resource that can be used to transform barren areas into beautiful gardens.”

When the students were asked about how the project changed the students’ views of stormwater, they said: “It was sad to learn that something that we take for granted, can cause so much trouble, such as flooding, and can become polluted as it travels across streets and parking lots and picks up pollution. It was good to learn how we can reduce that pollution and flooding by creating areas for it to soak in and be filtered.”

The JrPLEWA youth advocates that made the City Hall rain garden project a success:
Bryan Corle, Seneca High School • Katherine Martin, Mercyhurst Prepatory School • Elyse McMahon, Erin Nawrocki & Sonia Rosales, Villa Maria High School • Vetta Stepanyan & Samantha Szoszorek, Strong Vincent High School • Sara Yu, Northwestern High School

This Success Story, like the project,was a group effort involving: Susan A. Smith, Director of Development, Lake Erie-Allegheny Earth Force, Sarah Galloway, Erie Sustainability Coordinator and various students from the Junior Lake Ere Watershed Association.

For more information about the project please contact Susan A. Smith,, or visit the Earth Force website (

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.