Dowagiac District Library Director Kathy Johnson in the rain garden along New York Avenue

Archived Story

Rain garden rescues library

Published 9:34pm Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Growing up on a Marcellus dairy farm, Dowagiac District Library Director Kathy Johnson considered becoming a drain commissioner.
Be careful what you wish for because Johnson, in her second year at DDL after a career in school libraries, nearly met her “Waterloo” due to excessive rain water flooding the storm drains and backing up into the first floor of the 1904 Carnegie library.
Confident a rain garden like one she saw a program on at Town and Country Garden Club could remedy the problem, she recommended the library board contract with Foegley Landscape of South Bend, Ind.
The rain garden relied on $20,000 from library building and grounds funds and required no supplemental money from the city budget. The library rents the city-owned building for a dollar and maintains it.
A rain garden consists of native shrubs, perennials and grasses that will hold, soak and filter 90 percent of toxic chemicals and petroleum byproducts and 80 percent of bacterial sediments found in runoff from roofs, parking lots and gutters.
Long tap roots can absorb a deluge or prolonged drought. Grand Rapids is one place adding rain gardens, along with rooftop gardens, she said.
The rain garden which went in late last spring and is not yet fully established, allows for 30 percent more water volume to filter into native plant root systems than do lawns, particularly decorative stone along Zarry’s Alley facing Huntington Bank.
The trees are dogwoods, with benches facing New York Avenue.
Since the library had already undertaken uncovering the rear and side walls from railroad ties and an earthen berm to clean, tuckpoint and seal the brick, many citizens assumed the landscaping was a continuation of the noticeable improvements rather than a separate issue.
Some even criticized it as a frivolous expenditure during a recession rather than an environmentally sound solution that beautifies the exterior while keeping water from invading through overflowing toilets and drains.
The library is surrounded by parking lots “and all that water polluted by petroleum products goes into the storm sewer. So does all the water off the flat roof.”
“I’ve had lots of people comment about our landscaping,” Johnson said Tuesday.
“Hardly anybody knows it saved us. In this economy, ‘The library can afford landscaping? Don’t you have books to buy and computers to provide?’ The people who love to pick things apart, that’s what they said. But the majority, even without knowing it’s a rain garden, thought it looked pretty. We’re lucky it looks pretty, but this rain garden saved the library.”
If you’ve never given the library itself more than a glance, its architecture exposed from dirt and giant bushes like in 1904 emulates that of Beckwith Theatre. Concrete and tar concealed the fieldstone foundation. The front was added in 1973, filling the sloped lawn.
“It’s a gorgeous part of the Grand Old City,” Johnson said. But “on April 12, 2010, we had a major flood because of the rainfall intensity, amount and duration. Our elevator had (knee-high) water in the pit.
“We found drains in this library we didn’t know we had until water came up through them. Other parts of town had the storm water and sewer separated. It didn’t happen here. Just prior to figuring out what we were going to do, we plugged up all the drains and thought we had water coming in licked. Rain came in through the toilet, in a geyser like Mount Vesuvius.”

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