Alumni Column: Fixing the Water



When a rainstorm comes to Hamilton, most students and faculty are probably thinking “Oh, not again!” wishing instead for sunnier days and less precipitation. Hamilton certainly has a reputation for receiving more than its share of water. What is surprising, though, is that the average citizen is not aware of how important rain can be in terms of serving as a resource (drinking water) and as a cause of water pollution. Unfiltered rainwater that lands and replenishes our rivers, streams and lakes is often taken for granted. However, in places, such as, the west where we are seeing a real shortage of precipitation, preserving the rain is a part of a growing movement.

Storm water is rainwater and melted snow that runs off streets, lawns and other sites. When storm water is absorbed into the ground, it is filtered and ultimately replenishes our aquifers or flows into streams and rivers. In developed areas, however, impervious surfaces such as pavement and roofs prevent precipita­tion from naturally soaking into the ground. On campuses such as Colgate’s, there is enough open space and land to help absorb the impacts – even when the larger storms occur. If you travel to nearby cities including Syracuse, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington DC, they face real challenges with no primary sources of water. These same cities are leading the charge to collect that storm water and put it to productive reuse and engage their citizens and businesses as part of the solution. If you are honest, you would realize that you probably never worried about rain other than wondering when it was going to stop. Perhaps because when a storm hits, we forget the path the water takes since it is for all practical purposes “out of sight.” For local communities, however, there are costs to having to treat storm water runoff. The good news is that there are ways that local citizens and students can be part of the solution.

Using rain barrels, installing green roofs and rain gardens and planting trees are all practical and simple sustainable practices that help link smart utilization of runoff with citizen engagement. Our urban centers are places where small efforts can reduce the impacts of street and basement flooding challenges. Seattle and Portland have served as great role models for the east on improving neighborhood streetscapes by installing buffers, rain gardens and tree filters which provide amenities that not only improve the look and feel of a neighborhood but also lessen urban heat island effects and help with traffic calming.

Some of our major metropolitan cities are having informal competitions to have their city considered one of the “greenest.” Chicago is promoting green roofs; in Philly the mayor began a campaign challenge to be the “greenest” and has integrated several of his municipal programs. Public works, streets and parks to all work together to lessen the impacts of storm water. So what can you do? Think carefully when you decide to go out and buy fertilizer to green up your lawn. Consider lessening the amount of fertilizer you need – or go organic. You save yourself money and improve the quality of the streams near you.

Install a rain barrel and water some of your garden with it. Consider using some of your lawn and turning it into a beautiful rain garden. Less maintenance and some very cool natural wildlife will make your new amenity a neighborhood attraction. Just remember that the rain you see and hear ultimately does travel somewhere.