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Northport eyes rain gardens to clean stormwater runoff

Rusty Schmidt, left, and Rob Crafa on Saturday,

Rusty Schmidt, left, and Rob Crafa on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. They support putting rain gardens along Main Street in Northport to clean stormwater runoff that rushes into the harbor. Credit: David L. Pokress

Flower gardens. Vegetable gardens. Herb gardens. Rain gardens?

Northport plans to launch a project to put rain gardens — natural landscaping that cleans storm-water runoff — around the village’s Main Street.

Officials said they are in early stages of the initiative that will be part of the next push to improve water quality in Northport harbor.

“We don’t see any downside,” village trustee Ian Milligan said. “It seems effective, it seems easy to pay for, and we think it’s going to be well-received.”

The gardens are 6- to 12-inch-deep depressions in the ground’s surface that catch stormwater and filter out nitrogen, phosphorous and other harmful pollutants through the soil. The garden basins are filled with compost and plants to aid the cleaning process.

Rain gardens are strategically placed to catch water where it collects, or surrounding land can be regraded to better direct water into the basin. They absorb the water within a day, and it is considered clean enough to drink as little as 2 feet below ground, officials said.

“What we’re doing is mimicking nature,” landscaping ecologist Rusty Schmidt said. “Instead of having it [runoff] go straight to the bay, we have it go through the ground so it’s clean when it gets to the bay.”

Schmidt, a Northport resident, brought the concept to the Feb. 2 meeting of village trustees, who later said they were interested in pursuing the idea. Northport has struggled with harbor water quality issues for years and has spent $5.5 million on major renovations to its sewer treatment plant to reduce nitrogen pollution. But the sewer treatment plant is only part of the solution, Milligan said.

Rain gardens can stop 75 percent to 100 percent of nitrogen, phosphorous and E. coli from entering the waterways, Schmidt said, adding that Long Island’s highly porous soil is ideal for the gardens because water soaks into the ground faster than it does in denser soils or clay, which means the gardens can handle more stormwater in less time.

The village won a $500,000 state Department of Environmental Conservation grant for storm-water runoff management several years ago, but that project never got underway, village administrator Tim Brojer said. The grant money would be “more than enough” for the new initiative, Brojer said, but it expired in December and village officials will seek an extension to use the funding.

“The cost is really the plants. Everything else is digging,” Brojer said.

Main Street in Northport runs downhill from Route 25A to the harbor. Schmidt is to identify areas along Main Street and surrounding roads where rain gardens would be most effective.

“A tremendous amount of water runs down Main Street every time it rains,” Milligan said. “It’s where we’re going to start because it’s our biggest problem and it’s also our most visible,” Milligan said. Property owners along Main Street and surrounding roads will be asked to participate, at no cost.

Northport resident Rob Crafa, 45, said he is trying to persuade his neighbors on Crestfield Place to install gardens of their own. The water quality advocate believes wide adoption will mean a cleaner harbor.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Crafa said.

“Getting the first volunteers will be difficult,” Milligan said. “But I think once people can see them, more will follow.”

Installing the gardens can cost $250 to $750 for homeowners who want to build their own, or $1,500 to $5,000 for a contractor installation, Schmidt said.

“From here on out it’s not going to be the big sewer plant project, it’s going to be little things and getting more people to do their part” to improve water quality,” he said.

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