Dealing with the Downpour

It rained and it rained. Three inches, five inches, nine inches, 13 inches of new water fell on Annapolis.

City Dock was underwater. Compromise Street was flooded. The low places in Eastport on Second Street and Chester Avenue and in West Annapolis on King George Street were flooded. Roads with the least bit of incline were sluiceways for water. Overloaded storm drains seeking new outlets made missiles of manhole covers.

On September 30, 2010, a mini-Isabel was flooding Annapolis.

Off West Street near the Visitors Center, employees at 30C West watched in amazement the torrents of rainfall. Yet the surface of the new parking lot facing them remained relatively dry. For months, employees and visitors had entered the building across wooden boards bridging an archeology dig in an ancient privy. The boards were gone now, covered by a new parking lot paved with 10,000 pervious bricks.

The innovative new technology of pervious pavers lets rain water return to the ground to replenish groundwater, the natural process intended by nature. This is what people at 30C West and the Visitors Center witnessed as the city was being drenched by the once-in-30-year deluge.

To capture the excess water from heavy, heavy rain before it could find its way to a storm drain, the parking lot is surrounded by six rain gardens planted with the flora and fauna typical of the Chesapeake Bay system. Sen. John Astle calls this space, designed in an elliptical pattern typical in the historic city by The O’Doherty Group, a Parking Garden.

And garden it is, filtering and cleansing the water of pollutants before it reaches College Creek and the Severn River. Visual amenities of cobblestone and recycled glass and one solar powered parking meter lend an aura of welcome to the 40,000 visitors arriving by bus, car, bicycle or motor scooter who get their introduction to the Capital City at this location.

Innovation Ain’t Easy

The vision and the work on this parking space began four years ago. The Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Visitors Center was under reconstruction. The surface parking lot, the construction staging area, was a muddy mess. What better place to demonstrate new green technology for stormwater control than here, in plain sight of visitors and elected state leaders who profess the need to clean up the Bay from harmful urban pollutant stormwater runoff. The City Council bit the bullet and included public parking lot conversions to pervious surfaces in its Capital Improvement Budget in 2006-07.

Little Gotts Court took four years to build. Annapolis today is an urban center and an historic city requiring archeology investigation and the approval of multiple agencies over construction, procedures not faced by builders at the turn of the century.

During the two-year archeology exploration, 9,000 artifacts were recovered from two privy sites dating back to the 1760s. In this fiscally pinched economy, $729,000 was finally secured through a stimulus grant from the Maryland Department of the Environment. Lily Openshaw, civil engineer with the city’s Department of Public Works, managed the Little Gotts Court Parking Garden construction project, the only grant-funded green project in an historic district in the state.

Once digging was under way, the new, one-of-a-kind, innovative environmentally sustainable project was completed through the heat of the summer in record time.

Why go to so much trouble?

Water defines Annapolis. Four creeks lace the city and empty into the Severn River. The Severn enters into Chesapeake Bay at its dead zone. Both have been declared impaired waters that cannot sustain wild life, fish or vegetation. The bounty of the Bay supports not only the region’s hospitality industry — housed above the new parking area — but also watermen, ship builders and the leisure and professional sailors who define the quality of life familiar to Annapolitans, a lifestyle they hope to pass on to their children and grandchildren. 

Spurred on by citizens disappointed in the 30-year effort to clean up Chesapeake Bay — the world’s largest estuary and nursery for the ocean’s fish — the Federal Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a fast-track program for cleaning up the Bay. New enforcement regulations are to be focused on the impaired waterways and their tributaries. The responsibility for achieving pollution diets falls on local government, which was left out of the problem-solving for decades. 

Little Gotts Court represents one local government collaborative effort to tackle the problem of stormwater runoff in an urban area. It is an example of what it takes to give Mother Nature a helping hand in restoring the waters of our creeks, rivers and Bay. It is an example to other localities of what can be done in reinventing antiquated stormwater systems. Helping to restore ecological balance is not inexpensive. The price for inaction and the cost of lost jobs and quality of life may be even greater.

One Down, Many to Go

The next time the rain comes down, the Parking Garden off Northwest Street will be doing its share to banish pollutants from our waterways and to replenish much-needed groundwater. Many more parking gardens are needed. Driveways? Roadway gutters? What will be the next Little Gotts Court of pervious pavers and stormwater capture?

Ellen Moyer was mayor of Annapolis from 2001 to 2009, during the planning and archeological investigation of the Little Gotts Court Parking Garden, which was dedicated this month.