Plant now for a brighter future

In this era of extreme weather, the New Scotland Town Board members heard cries for help at their August meeting.

Residents asked the board to come up with a “green initiative” to help combat the local effects of climate change.

Readers of this page know there are no easy answers. Changes in individual habits are needed to stem the use of fossil fuels — and the federal government has finally provided meaningful incentives — as well as leadership from small and large governments alike.

Read our story from earlier this month on the benefits you may qualify for, from clean vehicle rebates and green energy tax breaks to funds for farmers using sustainable practices.

New Scotland board members and residents alike suggested some kind of grassroots effort, like letters to the Enterprise editor, would be helpful to kickstart the local green initiative. So we will begin here.

Specific complaints were aired at the meeting about flooding, as Sean Mulkerrin reported. Throughout our coverage area, volunteer firefighters have been busy this summer pumping out basements. The excessive rain has been as extreme as the heat this summer.

Charles Divine, whose home backs up to the town’s Swift Road Park, told the board that, after torrential rains in July, the usually calm stream by his house had turned into a raging river, ripping out a footbridge; the flooding took out about 80 feet of his neighbor’s 3-foot-tall timber retaining wall. 

Divine has installed 22 tons of boulders and 15,000 pounds of rock wall, but the flooding has only worsened over time due to more frequent extreme storms, he said. A neighbor who gets flooded downstream, Pat Corcione, said he has planted a dozen trees — willows, he said, are good at sucking up water — but he’s out of room.

To fight the effects of climate change, Corcione said, “We need everybody to do it.”

He is right. A concerted effort, especially one led by a municipality, can make a difference. Certainly, as Divine writes in a letter to the editor this week, keeping a drainage ditch free of debris helps but there is more to be done — by individuals and municipalities.

We illustrated Mulkerrin’s story with a picture of a rain garden. It was taken 14 years ago — back when climate-change deniers were still writing angry letters to us — of a project at Cornell Cooperative Extension in New Scotland.

The extension’s horticulturist at the time, Sue Pezzolla, told us how rain gardens capture water runoff from roofs and roads in order to stop pollutants in the water from reaching our waterways.

“Water runoff rarely goes through filtration plants,” she said. “In Albany County, polluted water goes straight into the Hudson River. And it’s a lost opportunity that the water is going somewhere else instead of seeping into the ground and recharging our own aquifers.” 

A rain garden, shaped more like a saucer than a bowl, is designed to hold water for four to 12 hours, depending on the type of soil, which is not long enough to breed mosquitoes. They vary in size, depending on how much runoff is to be captured and filtered. They are planted with native perennials that soak up large amounts of water effectively but don’t need additional watering during dry spells.

The native perennials are not cut back in the fall but instead are allowed to decompose naturally through the winter. This provides food and shelter, Pezzolla said, for “beneficial insects” like praying mantises, certain types of wasps, and ladybugs, which feast on aphids while in the larval stage.

We imagine a rain garden in New Scotland’s Swift Road park might well help absorb runoff while also educating the public on the beauty and worth of native plants without causing excessive extra work for town maintenance crews.

Seasonal maintenance can be reduced further by planting woody plants that also help with stormwater retention.

Nina Bassuk, a professor emerita of Cornell University, spent a lifetime developing and teaching about ways to use plants to enhance urban environments.

She oversaw a study in Ithaca testing the flood and drought tolerances of various shrub species. The resulting paper, “Woody Shrubs for Stormwater Retention Practices: Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Regions,” is packed with useful information.

“Historically stormwater runoff only occurred during large storm events when the rate of rainfall or snowmelt was greater than the rate at which water could be absorbed into the soil,” the paper explains.

But, it goes on, with the advent of wide-scale development and urbanization, the area of impervious surface in the United States is approximately 40,005 square miles with an additional 316 square miles being added each year. Increases in artificial impervious surfaces like roads, roofs, sidewalks, and parking lots have created a corresponding increase in stormwater runoff.

This is all in addition to our current weather with more rain because of climate change. The northeastern United States has experienced a dramatic increase in total and extreme precipitation over the past 30 years, says a recent Dartmouth College study published in Climatic Change. As our warmer climate creates more humid conditions in the Northeast, extreme precipitation events — defined as at least 1.5 inches of heavy rainfall or melted snowfall in a day — are projected to increase in the Northeast by 52 percent by the end of the century.

This affects every aspect of our lives. About one-third of the U.S. economy — some $3 trillion — is sensitive to weather and climate, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The list of problems caused by stormwater runoff is long and includes many that are less obvious than the ones itemized to the New Scotland board like structures being ripped away or stream banks eroding.

Water sources fill with sediment, which warms the water by absorbing solar radiation, and has a bad effect on stream bottom habitats. The resulting loss of oxygen is harmful to aquatic life.

Water sources also become poisoned with pesticides or contaminated with bacteria and freshwater turns salty with de-icing agents used on roads in winter.

“At all levels of government the impacts of past mishandling of stormwater management have resulted in broad scale initiatives to improve our practices, and as a result, improve water quality,” says Bassuk’s 2017 paper, citing, among other examples, the New York Stormwater Management Design Manual.

The paper goes on to highlight a series of initiatives that slow, retain, and in certain cases detain stormwater during and after a storm. All of them involve plants. One initiative is the rain garden.

Others include planting a filter strip with lawn, maintaining a turf-lined swale, or planting trees in a way that reduces runoff and erosion by channeling water into the soil surrounding the trees. Tree canopies temporarily catch and slow or stop water from reaching the ground. In addition, trees will uptake some of the water in this area through their roots.

The list goes on. Stormwater planters are designed to slow, filter, and possibly retain stormwater runoff. They come in three forms: contained planters, infiltration planters, and flow-through planters. Contained planters are impervious boxes designed to hold a finite amount of water that is then slowly released through evaporation and transpiration. Infiltration planters have open bottoms and allow runoff to slowly infiltrate into the soil below the planter. Flow-through planters have built-in drains that allow water to move out of the planters after it has been slowed and cleaned by the planting media in the planter.

Plants are integral to all of the proposals put forth in Bassuk’s paper, which explains why. Plant roots provide infiltration channels for water to move through, removing pollutants like heavy metals from stormwater.

Plants also help hold soils together, reducing erosion. They improve air quality through the uptake of gaseous pollutants and, in developed areas, they reduce the “urban heat island effect” through evaporative cooling and shading.

Plants can sequester atmospheric carbon and they increase biodiversity and create wildlife habitat.

Plus, they are beautiful to behold and, if planted in a public place, like New Scotland’s town park, they can educate and inspire others.

Professor Bassuk created a Sustainable Landscapes Trail at Cornell in 2018 so that students, faculty, and visitors alike could understand methods that make a positive difference. Twenty sites along the trail illustrate various kinds of plants and techniques — from bioswales to a parking lot that allows rain to fall through it.

Her paper concludes with 36 pages of plants that are useful for stormwater retention and infiltration. Each description is accompanied with a vivid photograph.

“Plants that can handle both temporary inundation and relatively protracted drought are the best choices for a low-maintenance planting,” the paper says and goes on to note the many factors that must be considered to have a plant thrive in a particular site.

This includes exposure to sun and shadows, hardiness, soil fertility and pH, soil conditions like texture and compaction, salt runoff from winter road treatments, and irrigation access among others.

The paper also explains the site design elements needed for successful planting and the regular maintenance tasks that will be needed such as mulching or thinning.

So, where to begin?

Bassuk has an answer for that, too. She created a Woody Plants Database. The website, which is searchable, has more than 500 descriptions of groundcovers, vines, shrubs, and trees. If you type in “dogwood,” you’ll find eight different kinds.

The Bloodtwig dogwood grows to 8 feet tall and the Cornelian cherry dogwood grows to 30 feet. You’ll learn what kind of soil each needs and how much sun or shade. You’ll be able to see pictures of each in the various seasons — white flowers in the spring, red berries in the fall.

Such vision, such beauty, can be a call to action. Let’s pick up our shovels and dig in.

More Editorials

  • We hope we have clawed our way into an era, with brave survivors speaking out about the crimes that wrenched them as children, where we adults are more mindful of children’s safety and our duty to protect it.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.