April 4 2012 12:00 AM

Neighborhood is not keen on negative effects of "greener" stormwater system


“It’s like having a swamp in your front yard,” said Jesse Draper, pointing at the large pools of water in the grass median on Barnes Avenue directly in front of his house.

“It’s like they’re small lakes with teeny tiny trees poking out of them,” Draper said.

Along with other residents of Barnes Avenue, Draper, who has lived at 419 Barnes Ave. for nearly 10 years, said the ditches are an eyesore. They fill up with water after heavy rains and melting snow, and there is usually trash that winds up in the pond from off the streets.

Along with diminishing the neighborhood aesthetics, residents say when the ponds retain water for lengthy periods of time they become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

“The mosquitoes get out of control,” Draper said. “That’s the biggest deal for me because there is a noticeable difference.”

It turns out these are city-sponsored swamps.

The ditches, which dot the boulevard of Barnes Avenue from Bradley Avenue to Todd Avenue, are part of a larger pilot program developed by the Lansing Public Service Department and private contractors to “find a greener approach to stormwater management,” said Chad Gamble, the city’s Public Service director.

The grass ditches are known as “swales” and are intended to catch stormwater runoff from the streets that would otherwise end up in the underground storm sewers.

The pools’ intention is in fact to collect water, Gamble said. But it’s not “a bathtub,” he insists. The basins are designed so water that runs into the basins from the road will “percolate through the soil,” and filter the water of pollutants and trash — sending a cleaner product into the river.

The grass medians used to be slightly raised, sloping down toward the street, which forced the road runoff down to the sewer carrying trash with it, said Dorothy Jones, who has lived at 426 Barnes Ave. since 1963 and is a member of the Moores Park Neighborhood Organization.

“I thought the original plan was a good idea,” Jones said. “It sounded like a good environmental move.”

Other neighbors, like Draper, agreed with Jones.

“The concept I’m fine with,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem to be working.”

Since the project began three years ago it has been a “mess and a nuisance” for the neighborhood, Jones said. The ditches have been dug up three times because they never drained properly. The most recent construction took place last summer, she said.

The small, skinny trees that poke out of the ditches were added during the renovations, said Melvin Nealy of 409 Barnes Ave. He thinks the ditches should just be leveled out to match the rest of the boulevard.

“Some people are fed up,” he said. “No way is there an adequate level of drainage. It’s not cutting it. They created a problem.”

Lansing City Councilwoman Carol Wood said residents came to her with complaints last year when the ditches continued to pool excess water.

“To my understanding they’re still not doing what they’re supposed to,” Wood said, reaffirming eyesore and mosquito complaints.

“If there is a problem, the city needs to step up and hold somebody responsible,” she said. “That’s taxpayer money being used and they are not acceptable.”

The city has indeed held somebody responsible, Gamble said: the developers.

At first the pools did not drain correctly, but the problem was addressed through the rounds of construction last year, he said.

People think that the city paid for the redesign and construction of the new swales, though Gamble said this is not the case. He said all the extra renovations were done on the contractor’s dollar after the Public Service Department complained about the problem. He said the city only paid developers once — for the initial construction.

Gamble said because the swales now adequately drain water, there is no reason they would contribute to a mosquito problem. He said the water doesn’t stand long enough to allow for mosquito larvae to hatch.

The Michigan Mosquito Control Association website has information that says “summer floodwater mosquitoes” lay their eggs in inches of water that pools in meadows and roadside ditches and can hatch within seven to 10 days. Residents said the pools have persisted at those lengths but only after continuous, heavy rain for several days.

The fact that the swales collect trash from off the street is a good thing, Gamble said. It’s refuse that doesn’t wind up flowing into the river.

The city sees a great benefit to more environmentally friendly stormwater management, he added. There are several similar projects throughout the city with grass swales on Linden Street and “rain gardens” along Michigan Avenue. Both are designed to do the same thing, which Gamble said is to prevent “discharging chemicals and litter directly into the river.” He called it “Mother Earth filtration.”

The swales are a new development that may take getting used to, Gamble said: If everyone looked at it as an important small step to helping the environment, then perhaps their perceptions would change.

Draper and Jones said this year has been drier than last year and the swales have not been as backed up with water, but they’re still concerned the problems of mosquitoes and murky water will persist. Gamble said the swales are indeed functioning properly, so the question is whether those living on Barnes Avenue can accept the fact that while the ditches may collect trash and water, they are in turn keeping Lansing’s riverways cleaner.