October 6, 2006


Kansas City’s rain gardens hide the truth
by Patrick Dobson

Kansas City’s really good at getting things done — the old fashioned way. Instead of enforcing its green building codes and really putting together mass transit initiatives that would take the rubber off the road, it continues to pump out PR about how well it’s doing environmentally when it’s really not doing much at all.

The 10,000 Rain Gardens Initiative is a perfect example.

Rather than making sure every developer who builds a new building or house reclaims its water runoff, we have an initiative dedicated to creating a new version of putting out the blue recycling bin before hopping into the SUV for a nice, gas-guzzling drive to work.

The problem with the Rain Garden Initiative is not the garden itself. Digging and planting a garden strategically placed to catch rainwater runoff is a great idea for body, soul and property value. But through the initiative, the city pushes its responsibility off on regular Joes who have to pay for businesses that offload their chemical-laden storm water on the city’s infrastructure.

Moreover, the initiative is just talk unless the citizen can get something more than delight from the work, and driving, involved in putting together a rain garden.

First, if the city was serious about dealing with water runoff emptying into an already taxed storm-drain and sewer system, it would make the rain garden more accessible to the working citizen. As it stands, once someone digs a hole, they are out of luck finding the plants they need to fill it.

Sure, there are “local” places to buy the native plants — kind of. Both the 10,000 Rain Gardens and the Mid-America Regional Council Web sites recommend planting native flowers, grasses and trees. The 10,000 Rain Garden site lists nurseries where one can buy these plants, all cultivated to local conditions from local gene pools. But these nurseries and retail-plant operations are not even in the city — they are in Belton, Overland Park, Shawnee, Liberty and Lenexa.

Now getting into a car and driving may be a way of life for most Kansas Citians, but inner-city folks and those without the interest or the means for buying these plants — which include most Kansas Citians — relegates the rain garden to the most suburban-like neighborhoods in the city. Given that the great masses of houses on the Westside, the Northeast, and east of Troost are not places were pretty gardens are generally priorities, the people who will likely be interested and able to put rain gardens together live west of Ward Parkway and south of 47th Street.

Granted, these neighborhoods are the grandest environmental violators, with big, chemical-treated, trim lawns (which everyone should know is an environmental damn shame), thousands of exotic plants and sprayed trees. They have the obligation to reclaim their runoff and save all of us a few dollars in storm drain tax. Since the highest population density is in Midtown, Westside, Northeast and the Eastside, access to rain-garden native plants needs to be a priority with the city.

But the rain garden initiative is just talk. “10,000 Rain Gardens is not a government program,” the 10,000 Rain Gardens Web site states. “It is an initiative, calling upon the creativity of citizens, corporations, educators, and non-profit organizations to join with government to voluntarily reduce the amount of runoff that pollutes our waterways.”

Thus, the Rain Garden Initiative is doomed. Voluntary works for corporations as long as there’s PR and money in it. But these kinds of voluntary efforts always fall to the cost/benefit analysis. As soon as it starts costing money, or the PR and storm-water savings wear off, the rain garden will go the way of the tallgrass prairie on corporate land.

Non-profits, citizens and educators may get a kick out of planting rain gardens. But the city’s experience with these kinds of initiatives proves that after a brief moment, the excitement ends, interest wanes and the effort goes the way of Reddi-Kilowatt reminding us to turn the lights off.

Granted, gardening is great, and a good way to catch storm-water runoff. For over two years, we have been redirecting and catching runoff through serious hard-scaping — unmortared stone-walled terraces, vegetable beds and a number of native tree plantings in our Westside property. It’s worked well and it’s inspired neighbors to do their bit to keep their water on their properties with gardens and the use of rain barrels to ease their watering chores in high summer.

But if the city were serious about improving water quality, those planting a rain garden would get a break on their Kansas City Water Department storm sewer tax in the proportion of the water they keep out of the system. City employees who get paid on the basis of how many gardens they help install would be wandering neighborhoods. Those same employees would be paid for building rain gardens for the elderly, physically challenged and those in neighborhoods that would really benefit from a cleaner, prettier environment. Moreover, the city would maintain a plant bank where native plants would cost a fraction of retail for all those 10,000 rain gardens.

Better yet, the city would demand that all developers build buildings to green standards — according to the city’s present ordinances — instead of giving the developers loopholes. It should limit development in watersheds and make sure all new building account for its own storm water or a good portion of it, and police it.

Right now, the rain garden initiative rings hollow, just window dressing and PR attempt to hide the city’s poor record on water quality. Even with 10,000 rain gardens, the runoff from commercial development, road and highway building, and parking lot construction floods the city’s storm-drain and sewer infrastructure.

Citizens — those same people now asked to do their part for improving water quality — pick up the tab for wastewater treatment and continuing the ugly development cycle that continues to spoil the environment.

So, while the rain garden, or any garden for that matter, is still a good idea, Kansas Citians need to look a little closer at what the Rain Garden Initiative hides and demand their city government get off its duff and get its hands dirty.

For more information, see: 10,000 Rain Gardens,

For a better, more precise idea of how to build a rain garden, see:
University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension, “Home and Garden Clean Water Practices” or Rain Gardens: A Household Way to Improve Water Quality in Your Community,

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at


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