Building relationships among the public, private and civil society sectors has proven to be a successful model for the management of water resources around the globe. The RiverSmart Homes Program in the District of Columbia is a local example of this cooperative model.

Funded by the District Department of Energy and Environment (public), the program relies on local contractors for project design and installation (private), and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay for program coordination and implementation (civil society). This collaborative structure has set the program apart from other stormwater programs and continues to foster strong participation.

RiverSmart Homes addresses community stormwater challenges in DC by providing financial assistance to homeowners to install projects such as rain gardens, native landscapes and permeable pavers to keep stormwater on their properties and out of city streets and waterways.

The Bloomingdale Rebate Program, a component of RiverSmart Homes, started as a pilot in 2014 to test homeowner rebate rates for replacing impervious surface with vegetation or permeable pavers, as an approach in a targeted part of the district plagued with historic flooding.

To date, the Bloomingdale program has reduced the amount of hard surface in its drainage area by more than 17,800 square feet, capturing tens of thousands of gallons of stormwater while providing more than $170,000 in rebates to property owners who have completed the work.

As the third year of the program winds down, a look back shows five factors important to success:

  • First, participants have many different motivations for using the program. For property owners, financial support for a product that both addresses drainage concerns and beautifies their property is key. Homeowners Matt McHugh and Chris Hinders said, “we wanted to do some hardscaping for aesthetic purposes and we had a problem with runoff so it was a solution for both.”Their contractor, Mike Walters of First Impression Hardscapes, joined the RiverSmart Homes Program in 2009. Walters wants to “further green infrastructure and educate homeowners about ways they can participate while at the same time improving their surroundings. It’s exciting because they can make their yard beautiful and get a rebate for it, while having a bigger local impact.” For Walters and other RiverSmart contractors, the drivers for participation go beyond business.
  • Second, there are various ways to enter the program. Most homeowners learn about the program through a RiverSmart stormwater audit, their contractors or via Alliance outreach and marketing.In addition to voluntary residential projects, the Bloomingdale program also targets large-scale community projects.Last year, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church was approached by Lauren Linville, a watershed protection specialist at the DOEE in the RiverSmart Homes Program. The 5,000-square-foot church parking lot caused a tremendous volume of stormwater runoff, impacting neighbors and the surrounding watershed. The city wanted to capture the stormwater and the church wanted to repair its parking lot, but lacked the funds. According to Church Trustee Claude Gregory, “we chose to participate in the program because of the economic benefits, a chance to improve the appearance of the church property and to create market value for the church and the surrounding neighborhood. We are very pleased with what was achieved.”Church congregants and staff aren’t the only ones who have noticed a difference. Neighbors responded, saying that they felt like “it helped to create value for the neighborhood, and made the neighborhood appreciate [the church] more,” Gregory said.
  • Third, partnerships must be efficient in dividing up required tasks in a way that enables each institution to do what it does best. Linville of DOEE said that the collaborative structure relies “very heavily on the Alliance to recruit, foster and maintain relationships with contractors willing to do these projects.” Contractor Walters agreed., “Having the Alliance involved helps the process in having a liaison between myself as a contractor, DOEE and the property-owners. It seems to be more efficient.”
  • Fourth, programs must adapt and capture opportunities through participant feedback. RiverSmart Homes has continuously evolved. With an open cooperative structure, there are many windows for participant feedback, which has already led to program changes. Learning from the pilot program, the $10-per-square-foot permeable paver rebate that has been so successful in Bloomingdale was extended to the entire city in the summer of 2016.
  • Last, a cooperative structure works best when it is community-oriented. Community relationships are important for many reasons.

For Masjid Muhammad, the Nation’s Mosque, in the District of Columbia, which undertook the most recent large-scale Bloomingdale project, the cooperative structure of RiverSmart was the primary motivation to participate. The mosque, which was also considering parking lot improvements and a 4,900-square-foot project to reduce runoff, was completed just this fall by First Impression Hardscapes. Jamal Williams, a real estate developer and member of the mosque leadership said, “the initial response from the community was overwhelmingly positive. They thought the process from installation to completion was orderly and the finished product exceptionally beautiful. The community also feels a sense of purpose, to be part of something that is contributing to a greater good.” The nature of the program created an opportunity for the community to work through an important decision-making process and raise awareness of key issues.

When asked about the community response to the finished product, Williams elaborated, “the design is so clean and functional that we are able to designate parking spaces for staff. There is a sense of dignity in that. For a parking lot to have this kind of impact on the community is unexpected. It literally lifted up the spirits of the community.” It’s become increasingly evident that the impact of these projects extends beyond stormwater management.

Despite the successes, there is still room for improvement. Removing barriers to participation, including expanding information about the program, lowering out-of-pocket costs and regular maintenance are challenges that still need cooperative solutions.

The strength of collaborative institutional arrangements, like RiverSmart Homes, is being able to involve a diverse set of stakeholders. But, is this approach leading to meaningful behavior change? What we know is that given financial and technical assistance, homeowners will choose to replace impervious surfaces with pervious ones. Contractors who see the financial, environmental and community benefits of stormwater projects, encourage their clients to do more. And, green infrastructure-
retrofitted parking lots are a source of pride in the community, inspiring a new level of respect for common spaces.

At the Alliance, we are working with more local governments who want to adopt similar programs in the region. All of this suggests that behavior is changing and stormwater management is moving toward more widespread use of public-private-civil society partnerships and symbiotic stormwater relationships.

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