Getting to Know Your Rain

Getting to Know Your Rain

By Kevin Mercer and Jennifer Hounsell

You may have wondered how a drop of rain falling on your community finds its way to the Great Lakes. Chances are first it falls on one of the many hard surfaces found throughout our cities – roofs, roads, sidewalks, parking lots and driveways, all of which are designed to quickly discharge it off these surfaces in as short a route as possible into a local storm drain. During that journey your rain grows hotter as it flows along the surface of the city and becomes contaminated by pollutants before entering storm or combined sewers.What was cool, slow, and clean rain destined for groundwater becomes a hot, fast and dirty flow of contaminated stormwater that degrades aquatic habitat, contaminates drinking water sources and endangers human health.

In the City of Toronto – like many cities on the Great Lakes, stormwater is particularly problematic.Over 70% of the City is now paved with buildings, parking lots, roads and sidewalks – which diverts more than 50% of the rain that falls from soaking into the soil. During heavy rain events, more than 25 times the normal volume of water rushes into Toronto’s storm and combined sewer system. This often leads to combined sewer overflows – discharges of raw sewage into the rivers and waterfront – as sewer system capacity is overloaded. Each year the City of Toronto experiences between 60-70 combined sewer overflow incidents, resulting in contaminated water and beach closures.

“Too many people don’t understand the impact that stormwater has on the City. A single rain storm in August 2005 cost the city over $34 million in repair costs from stormwater damage. If city surfaces could absorb more rain where it falls, the impact of heavy rain events like this one would be much less significant,” says Jennifer Hounsell, Program Director of RiverSides Stewardship Alliance.

Stormwater pollutants have been found to carry a toxic loading of sediments, pesticides, road salts, pet waste, oil and grease as well as untreated sanitary sewage into our rivers. Research by the Canada Centre for Inland Waters determined that urban runoff is the largest source of pollutants to Great Lakes tributary rivers, most of which is generated by the average homeowner, educational institution and business in the course of their daily activities. In the City of Toronto it only takes 15-30 minutes for pollutants to travel from local backyards to rivers via the storm sewer system.

5 Things You Can Do For Your River

We set out to reach a growing and mobile population of homeowners, businesses and institutions with the everevolving message of watershed protection? The challenge was how to keep stormwater management education and learning up to date.

RiverSides’ mission is to protect urban watersheds by reducing runoff pollution from individual properties by advancing the knowledge and application of low-impact development (LID) stormwater management, and reducing and preventing nonpoint source (NPS) runoff pollution. Their efforts include social marketing campaigns (the award-winning 5 Things You Can Do For Your River) and the advancement of pollution prevention policies (including the recently released A Low-Salt Diet for Ontario’s Roads and Rivers) that successfully and effectively advance the protection, preservation and restoration of our urban waters.

RiverSides designed a comprehensive social marketing outreach campaign – 5 Things You Can Do For Your River consisting of a Water Quality Canvass of residential neighbourhoods to deliver a suite of water quality protection programs. Over three years, 5 Things achieved direct personal contact and with it the commitment to water quality protection for individual residential source protection and low impact development.

A 1997 Council of Great Lakes Governors Award as “Urban Outreach and Education Success Story” helped spread the news. Over ten years, more cities and towns – Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Santa Monica,Welland – implemented RiverSides’ 5 Things program.

5 Things program designer and RiverSides executive director, Kevin Mercer, recognized that, to be effective in the long term meant keeping the 5 Things framework fresh in the minds of residents. That meant positive reinforcement and constancy. In addition to ongoing canvass outreach in neighbourhoods, Kevin knew that residents needed updated information to take them to the next level of stormwater management at home. So was born the “Homeowners Guide To Rainfall”.

Your Home – Your River: Make the Connection!

RiverSides’ primary objectives were to “make the connection” between watershed source protection and the practice of lot level stormwater management and the City of Toronto’s wet weather master plan. Supported by a grant from the City of Toronto’s Community Program for Stormwater Management (CPSWM) and Environment Canada’s Science Horizons Program, RiverSides commenced the design of The Homeowners’ Guide to Rainfall, a source protection education initiative. The Guide would help homeowners understand and implement low impact stormwater management techniques to achieve zero runoff from their properties, and as a result protect their local rivers.

This “web-guide” was designed to be a more interactive format that would educate, inform, and inspire Toronto homeowners to undertake low impact development at home.

In partnership with designers from Adhawk Communications, RiverSides created a web architecture and the programming elements with dynamic programming features such as an event calendar, news and seasonal alerts; interactive elements such as the Let’s Talk Water discussion forum, opinion polls, and roll-over flash images showcasing lot-level best practices. In addition, a glossary feature provides pop-up definitions of words throughout the site.

One of the key programming features was the design of a Content Management System (CMS) – a web application which allows for easy website management and content uploading (and updating).This enables RiverSides’staff and volunteers to upload and edit content without requiring technical expertise in website management. Using the CMS, staff and volunteers easily “populated” the site.

Once the draft site was finalized, the website underwent a thorough review process involving local ENGO staff working on similar issues, stormwater professionals (engineers, planners), City of Toronto and Toronto Region Conservation Authority staff, as well as members of the general public with an interest in finding out more about these issues.

Toronto Homeowners’ Guide To Rainfall

The official launch of the web-guide took place May 31, 2006. “The Guide helps people better understand how water moves through our city, as well as providing tips on how they can reduce stormwater runoff – beginning right in their own backyard,” says Hounsell.“We wanted residents to know how easy it was to do the things at home that really make a difference in the challenge of restoring our local water quality.”

Divided into three main sections, The Guide helps homeowners Make the Connection between where the rain falls – their property – and its resultant impact (as stormwater) on the health of our rivers and lakeshore waters; provides practical, achievable solutions to help homeowners reduce runoff pollution from their property in section two entitled (naturally) Five Things You Can Do; and provides additional resources to assist homeowners in getting it all done with Helping You Do It.

The Guide not only directs homeowners to existing City of Toronto programs, it acts as a support resource to help them understand those programs as well as provide them with the support necessary to move beyond them, i.e: information on how to install and maintain the RiverSafe RainBarrel, rain gardens, and drywells to capture and infiltrate runoff from their properties. Installing a rain barrel enables homeowners to harvest and re-use rain water otherwise lost to runoff – in fact, the average roof generates enough runoff in a typical year to flush a 6-litre toilet 12,000 times!

The Guide also recommends naturalizing yards with native plants, replacing paved surfaces with permeable pavers or interlocking brick, conserving water through rain water reuse, and going toxic-free by eliminating the use of cosmetic chemicals such as pesticides and road salts.

The Path to Clean Water

The Homeowners’ Guide is the most comprehensive source of stormwater information for City of Toronto residents. No other resource in the City provides the “one-stop-shop” for stormwater and low impact development information. Visitors to the site have commented:“All in all a very thorough and comprehensive site, one of the best interactive sites I’ve ever seen. I enjoyed it and learned a lot too.” “I would highly recommend it to people I know in the industry and the general public.”

Why We Did It

The Guide specifically advances the City of Toronto’s Wet Weather Flow Management Master Plan by “Making the Connection” between the vision, goals, and specific objectives of the Plan and the daily activities of Toronto homeowners. The Guide enables homeowners to integrate wet weather policy into personal habits by providing the resources and tools necessary to achieve change in an easy to understand manner. Most importantly, The Guide is a fulcrum for a wide variety of City of Toronto services and other community services and programs that enhance the homeowners’ practical application of stormwater management at the lot-level.

RiverSides’goal for the Homeowners’Guide To Rainfall is to establish links between the individual property owner and the health of their local river. While we recognize that the City’s wet weather awareness and education programs meet the basic needs, the Homeowners Guide is there to help move citizens beyond the standard education to a higher plane of achievement and participation in wet weather management objectives.

The Guide, as it becomes adopted and utilized by Toronto homeowners, grows a shared commitment to protecting Toronto’s rivers and watersheds.

“We have the ability to change our actions for the better and I’m certain Torontonians will find The Guide a useful and highly informative resource to do this” concludes Hounsell. “We all need to make the connection between what we do at home and the health of our local rivers.”

This Success Story was a collaboration between Kevin Mercer, founding Executive Director of RiverSide Stewardship Alliance, and Jennifer Hounsell, former RiverSides Program Director.

For more information Kevin may be reached at Visit RiverSides on the web at

Stay Informed

Connect With us


© 2021 Freshwater Future. All Rights Reserved.

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