Bethesda Presbyterian Church sits on a large plot of land in Northeast Philadelphia’s Bustleton neighborhood. The church's monthly stormwater fees—higher than they would like—reflected the property's large proportion of impervious surfaces, which put a considerable burden on the local sewers during storms. (More about how stormwater fees work here.)
Fortunately, Joan Wilson, a church elder, was determined to reduce that stormwater charge. "Financially, we needed to take a look at what could be done," Joan said. "I prayed a lot about what we should do as a church."
Those prayers were answered when a congregation member put her in touch members of the Philadelphia Water Department's Stormwater Management Incentives Program (SMIP) team.
This program offers grants to non-residential property owners, including nonprofit institutions like churches, interested in improving their property with green stormwater infrastructure investments.
While many green stormwater installations simply look like gardens to most people, they actually protect local waterways by soaking up polluted runoff from parking lots, roofs and other rain-repelling surfaces.
In addition to receiving grant funding and design assistance, participating churches can get credits toward their stormwater fees—credits that, in the eyes of Bethesda Presbyterian, seemed heaven sent.
Bethesda's Path to Stormwater Salvation
The firm's experts came out to survey the church grounds and followed up by drafting plans for a rain garden. After many visits and tweaking the plans to fit Bethesda's needs, they settled on their goal: four rain gardens fed by downspouts that would funnel rain from the roof and parking lot.
During every step, the church was intimately involved.
Every month, Joan updated her fellow church elders, held quarterly church-wide town hall meetings, and provided updates in the Beacon, their church bulletin. The Garden Committee—a natural fit for the effort—even worked alongside the engineers, picking plants and trees to be planted in the gardens.
It was through this process that Bethesda’s congregation began to see the project as something more than a way to save money on their water bill.
Green stormwater tools, they learned, come with extensive environmental benefits; the church's rain gardens would help to keep over 35,000 gallons of polluted stormwater away from the Pennypack watershed during a typical, 1-inch rainstorm.
Over the course of a year, that adds up to more than 1.5 million gallons of runoff managed right there in the church gardens.
Given that urban runoff represents one of the biggest sources of pollution impacting local rivers and creeks today, doing so much to help Philadelphia’s waterways is now a point of pride at Bethesda: their gardens cut back on that pollution, minimize stream bank erosion, and reduce flooding.
‘For the Community We Serve’
On top of all the good the gardens are doing for local waterways—the source of Philadelphia’s drinking water—they’re also a beautiful, natural addition to the church grounds.
Buzzing with important pollinator species like honeybees and butterflies, the flower-filled bowls of landscaped green space even provide an opportunity for youth and other members of the community to learn about nature and the importance of protecting our water.
It wasn’t easy, but they learned so much along the way in creating this new green space in their community.
"Suddenly, I found myself being an environmental person, and a partial engineer!" Joan said. "I learned a lot in the beginning, and then I prayed some more."
They also had a "wonderful team of people that really worked with Bethesda Church because they were committed to make this project work, and they went above and beyond."
Joan's faith played a huge role in keeping her motivated throughout the project.
"On this journey, I can say, as the Lord is my witness, that I felt God was leading us to do this, for this church, for the community that we serve, and for the broader population, because anyone who can positively influence the water supply—what’s going into our rivers, our streams—should do what they can," said Joan.
"Every time I went, 'Why did you allow yourself to get involved in this?' the Lord put someone in my path to help me. He wanted this to happen here. I believed that in my heart, and I still do."
Tips from a Green Stormwater Disciple
Joan has a few recommendations for other faith-based organizations thinking of installing green stormwater tools (often called GSI by engineers and developers) on their properties.
First, she says to make sure you know what you can truly commit to, financially.
She also reminds churches to be flexible, remembering that there will be changes that impact cost and time frame.
Finally, she says, "Recognize that it’s not only savings, but environmentally how important this is to the community that we’re all a part of, and will continue to be, going forward…And pray!"
Did you know...
Green infrastructure grants are just one way that faith-based and nonprofit organizations can get help from the Philadelphia Water Department. Your church or house of worship can also get a 25-percent charity discount, just for being a nonprofit. More here.
You can also get SMIP-inspired by checking out our Stormwater Pioneers honorees. These businesses and organizations were recognized by the City and PWD for using green stormwater investments to protect our waterways and improve their communities.