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Issues of the Environment: Investing in the Ypsilanti area's ability to capture stormwater and adapt to a changing climate

Washtenaw County Chief Deputy Water Resources Commissioner Harry Sheehan
Media Team
Washtenaw County
Washtenaw County Chief Deputy Water Resources Commissioner Harry Sheehan


  • Washtenaw County recently received a large grant from National Fish and Wildlife Foundationto increase green infrastructure in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township by building rain gardens, wild prairie pollinator gardens, and planting trees in community spaces
  • The grant comes via the Southeast Michigan Resilience Fund, and there are seven green infrastructure projects in the works for Ypsilanti. In total, the projects are estimated to:
  1. Capture 2,052,609 gallons of stormwater infiltrated in rain gardens
  2. Establish 3.54 acres of pollinator prairie restoration, native landscape and tree cover
  • Locations for the projects include Sugarbrook Park, Grace Fellowship Church, Faithway Baptist Church, Ypsilanti High School, Holmes Elementary, Appleridge Park, and the Community Center.
  • Before 1970, nearly all construction was done without planning for stormwater capture. Evan Pratt, Water Resources Commissioner for Washtenaw County, says studies have shown that peak rainfall from large storms has increased 40% from the 1960s to 2011, and an additional 70% increase in peak rainfall is expected by the end of the century.
  • Constructing pipes and basins to hold all that stormwater is much more expensive in urban areas because of the disruption to existing structures. Natural features like rain [gardens, prairies, and trees can capture stormwater for a fraction of the cost, and they create habitat for pollinators and other wildlife as an added benefit.
  • Harry Sheehan, Chief Deputy Water Resources Commissioner, oversees these green infrastructure projects for Washtenaw County, and he hopes to continue to add more projects like those in Ypsilanti.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we have experienced some of the effects of climate crisis in this area--from hot weather to more severe thunderstorms to heavier rainfalls. Adaptation is going to be key in how we manage a changing climate moving forward. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. One of the important issues to contend with is capturing more stormwater and increased investments in green infrastructure to help prevent flooding and support the local ecosystem. The Ypsilanti area is seeing some of those investments, thanks to a grant awarded back in March. The Southeast Michigan Resilience Fund awarded $1.6 million in grant funding for seven projects that will benefit communities and wildlife habitat. The grants awarded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will leverage $1.3 million more in matching contributions to generate a total conservation impact of more than $2.9 million. Our guest today is overseeing these local projects. Harry Sheehan is Washtenaw County's chief deputy water resources commissioner. And thanks for making time for us today.

Harry Sheehan: You bet.

David Fair: I said it, but I think it carries a lot more weight if we hear it from you. Am I right? Adaptation is key?

Harry Sheehan: Yeah, it's going to be key because what we're seeing, obviously, as you pointed out, we're seeing storms that are more intense. And that means that the big kind of not very common, like, 100-year storm is a little bit bigger. But for us, what it means locally is we're getting storms that are, you know, the moderate storms, one or two inches, coming in a very, very compressed period of time, like, you know, an inch and a half or two inches coming in 75 minutes. And even worse, we're seeing a little bit of that happening more and more in the winter or January, February, maybe March, when the ground is frozen.

David Fair: So, nowhere for it to go.

Harry Sheehan: There may be snowpack or the ground saturated. So, it's kind of like that water cycle you learned in the eighth grade or maybe it was fifth grade, I don't know. But, you know, water goes up into the clouds from evaporation, and it rains. And if you cut off that water going into the ground, it has nowhere to go but sideways.

David Fair: We've seen flooding issues result from stormwater in a number of areas in southeast Michigan, including Ann Arbor. And, as the climate has been changing, we've seen an increase in these storm events. That number increased 40% from the 1960s to 2011. And if predictions hold true, it's going to increase another 70% by the end of the century. We're simply not equipped to deal with that right now, are we?

Harry Sheehan:We're not. So, there are some things we can do. You know, the obvious solution is make the pipes bigger. That's incredibly expensive. It's a lot of investment. It also just kind of moves the problem downstream. So, that's why we're focusing on more of this green infrastructure, which is basically trying to do is create lag time on the landscape when it rains. So, I like to think about it if everybody leaves Michigan Stadium at the same time, there's a tremendous traffic jam in all the roads, and nobody's going anywhere because they're all lined up to get out. If you could get some of those people in some of those cars to hang out and tailgate a little bit longer or maybe walk downtown and have dinner, play hacky sack in the parking lot, whatever it may be, some of that traffic doesn't become part of the problem. It doesn't solve the problem, but it makes it a little bit easier for traffic to leave over a period of time. It's kind of the same thing that's happening on the landscape.

David Fair: And confusing enough people to make a real difference is very difficult after a football Saturday. Before 1970, nearly all construction was done without having the plan to capture stormwater. You mentioned expense, but how difficult is it to truly retrofit a community?

Harry Sheehan: Well, there are things that you can do that are not expensive, that it was not as expensive as putting in pipes in under every roadway, bigger pipes. So, we're doing a lot of that. We're putting in larger kind of regional detention basins. You can see that going up in the stadium here, actually over on Scio Church Road. We're putting in a big pond there. So, where we have the ability and the land to do it, we're kind of creating this capture of stormwater where it didn't exist. But there's also lots of things homeowners can do and lots of things you can do on a smaller scale. And we have to do more and more of that. So, planting trees is a great thing. Planting anything that's taller than grass will slow down stormwater. A tree will hold the first 10th of an inch of rainfall. You know that if you stand under a tree when it's raining. So, taking your downspouts and disconnecting them as they're going to the driveway, that helps a little bit. And these rain gardens that we're building, this kind of green infrastructure, rain gardens capture a little bit of that water and get it back into the ground to feed the groundwater and feed our creeks during the dry summer season.

David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment and our conversation with Harry Sheehan continues. Harry is Washtenaw County's Chief Deputy Water Resources Commissioner. So, let's talk a little bit specifically about the local projects that are aimed at capturing some of that stormwater. As I understand it, it is going to take significant amounts of water out of the stormwater drains that exist.

Harry Sheehan: Yes, we're aiming for 2 million gallons on an annual basis. So, we're putting in rain gardens at Sugarbrook Park and the community center in Ypsilanti in the parking lot there. We're putting in green gardens at the Faithway Baptist Church. And we're also putting in pollinator gardens at Ypsilanti High School and Holmes Elementary. Those are about an acre a piece. So, all in all, you know, we're trying to capture 2 million gallons of rainfall. It is significant. So, you know, even though these rain gardens, for instance, capture, they don't in a typical residential, like a homeowner--like, if you have a rain garden that the homeowner puts in--they can only be three or six inches deep. They're not very deep. But, over time, they capture a little bit from every storm, and they capture, you know, the first little bit of rain in a larger storm, too. So, all that water adds up significantly. It gets that water back into the ground where it belongs--where it should be.

David Fair: When or is the work underway? And when might it be completed?

Harry Sheehan: So, some of the work has begun. We started to prepare the site at Ypsilanti High School--for the pollinator garden--and Holmes Elementary. We're looking to start one of the church gardens pretty soon here in a few days in the middle of August. Grace and Faithway Baptist will happen a little bit later in the fall. The community center and the rest of them will probably take until next year. It's a two-year grant.

David Fair: This is Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU, and our guest today is Harry Sheehan, the chief deputy water resources commissioner in Washtenaw County. And, as you mentioned, planting trees makes a significant difference as well. And this project does allow for more planting of trees in community spaces. Is it going to be in every location that you're working on or just some of them?

Harry Sheehan: The tree planting will only be in Apple Ridge Park. That's the only place where we'll be doing tree planting in this grant. But we've done it in other places, and we're going to continue it as well.

David Fair: And you mentioned creating these pollinator prairie restoration projects. That has environmental impacts well beyond just capturing water. That helps sustain the ecosystem all through the Huron River system. ]

Harry Sheehan: Yeah, particularly in this area, because the Huron River does kind of traverse the Ypsilanti city and Ypsilanti Township area. So, you know, anytime you put native plants in, native species, native pollinators, birds included, are going to come and visit those sites. And that plays a part in kind of that general quality of the ecosystem there, because, beyond the water, you have the trees near the water, you have these native landscapes and these prairie sites. So, it creates a bunch of different habitats for the critters.

David Fair: And we talked about how difficult it can be to retrofit a community. But when we think of new development projects in Washtenaw County, are they now required to include stormwater capture and protection of native species as part of the construction and management plan?

Harry Sheehan: To have that required to capture stormwater, those requirements have become more and more stringent and, in fact, better over time. So, most new development does a really good job of capturing the stormwater and holding it from their development from the roadways up to the hundred-year storm. And, in fact, now they're required to infiltrate some of that if the soils will allow it. So, most of the problems that we're seeing are the result of all of the kind of development that happened in the boom years after World War Two. You know, the population of Washtenaw County was, what, 80,000 back then. It's 270,000 now. And there is quite a bit of construction and building over that period of time in spurts, and they didn't care to build up. They built out. So, you have lots of roads, lots of sidewalk, and more spacious landscape that was built. And it just didn't have any stormwater control. And those didn't come in until the seventies, really, the eighties and nineties is when it happened en masse.

David Fair: Obviously, beyond the work that this grant money will allow for, there's plenty more to be done moving forward. How vital is the success of these projects to help ensure that future grants were awarded to expand adaptation measures in the Ypsilanti area and throughout Washtenaw County?

Harry Sheehan: Yes, success breeds success. We started this in 2005 when very few people knew what a rain garden was, and now, we have 850 some rain gardens in Washtenaw County. We've trained and taught 1800 master rain gardeners, and if you're interested in that program, you can just look at Master Rain Gardeners dot orgor Google Rain Gardens in Washtenaw County, and you can become part of that program. So, it really is a growing network of green infrastructure that we're building, both privately and within the public sector. But it's also a growing community of people that are participating in this, and the granting agencies are seeing that. We're tending to get more money for that. I would love to expand in churches. I'm looking for ways to do that because churches, if you think about it, are great places where you have rooftop, lots of rooftop, lots of parking lot, but you have green space right next to it. So, you can create a rain garden or create some swales or some native pollinator garden. And a lot of those churches were built in that period of time we talked about.

David Fair: Thank you so much for the time today, Harry. I truly appreciate it.

Harry Sheehan: You bet. Thanks, David.

David Fair: That is Harry Sheehan, Washtenaw County's chief deputy water resources commissioner and our guest on Issues of the Environment. For more information, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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