That’s the message the Cahaba River Society has been trying to spread to developers and contractors around Birmingham, and some of them are starting to take note.
“We work with contractors, developers and architects to teach them how to handle storm water to save watersheds like streams and rivers and how they can save money in the process,” says Betsy Thagard, program director for the Cahaba River Society.
The trouble with rainwater in urban and suburban areas, Thagard explains, is that it can’t soak into the ground because of all of the pavement. The runoff is channeled offsite and goes into streams. With runoff comes erosion and sediment, polluting watersheds like the Cahaba River, one of the state’s primary sources of drinking water. Runoff endangers the wildlife in the river and, since it costs more to clean and treat, raises your water bill. So in a roundabout way, managing rain and runoff properly helps lower everyone’s water bills.
The techniques for managing rainwater can be surprisingly simple to implement. When contractors Brasfield & Gorrie built its company headquarters, the Southside building became the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified structure in Birmingham. According to B&G chief information officer Tom Garrett, most of the design dilemmas had easy solutions.
“In the old days when you made a patio you would have grouted it all in and the runoff would have gone into the sewer,” he says. “But we didn’t grout the brick in our courtyard, so our runoff goes down into the ground. We also did a lot of landscaping so as much water as possible is getting absorbed. The amount of water — the amount of runoff — that this prevents is a big deal.”
Other local businesses, including the Bass Pro Shop in Leeds, are using similar methods.
“Another technique is to save as much forested land on a development site as possible to keep vegetation available to absorb storm water,” Thagard says. “The Bass Pro Shop saved half a million dollars in development by just by preserving forested land. And studies have shown that subdivisions using low-impact development add more value to the property versus the typical cookie-cutter sites. They’re more attractive. The lots are typically smaller but they sell for more.”
Strategic landscaping and land preservation are some of the older practices. The newest techniques — and increasingly the most profitable — involve water reclamation, treating water as a resource rather than a waste product. Two of the companies employing this approach are McWane Pipe and Jenkins Brick and Tile. McWane uses recycled evaporated water and captured storm water for its foundry process rather than using city water. Jenkins Brick uses storm water in the manufacturing of tiles. Every gallon of reclaimed water is a gallon these companies don’t have to pay the city for supplying. Brasfield & Gorrie has also implemented water reclamation.
“The rain water that comes down from the roof all goes to a big cistern,” Garrett says. “I don’t remember how many thousand gallons — 8,000 or 10,000 gallons — all of that water from the roof goes into the cistern and we use that for our irrigation for all of our landscaping. We’re not using clean, city drinking water.”
As technology advances, conservation is becoming less about sacrifice and more about savings. Especially when considering the feeble state of the economy, businesses are beginning to approach environmental preservation as a cost-cutting measure that not only improves the public image of the company but improves the environment as well.
“It always takes a little bit of planning, a little bit of effort and a little bit of willingness to think outside the box and people come up with pretty innovative solutions that save money,” Garrett says. “And again you’re doing the right thing.”
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