Water used to rush down East Spring Street from Main Street in Williamsville during heavy rains, carrying oil and other particulates into storm drains, which discharged into Glen Park and Ellicott Creek.
"We had a few rain events where the outlet pipe was completely full," said Ben Vilonen, crew chief for the village's department of public works. "It looked like someone was shooting a hose out into the park, an 8-inch diameter hose."
But during this spring's unusually rainy season, that torrent has been reduced to a trickle due to a $3.3 million "green infrastructure" project recently completed that includes about a dozen rain gardens, permeable paving and a "green wall" of geosynthetic fabric planted with grasses.
Now, rather than cascading into the park, runoff from Main Street and village parking lots collects in the rain gardens where particulates are filtered out and broken down by plants. Water also flows into the gaps in interlocking paving stones on a new plaza in front of the Williamsville Water Mill and is filtered through a highly porous gravel below. The interconnected gravel forms a continuous storm drain system.
Then there's Williamsville's green wall, which "is one-of-a-kind around Western New York," according to Chris Murawski, director of citizen engagement for Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.
Made of geosynthetic fabric, the green wall has a series of voids that hold soil and have been planted with grasses to create a natural appearance. It stabilizes the steep slope north of the bend in the road near the mill, where the outfall for the rain gardens and permeable paving is located.
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Williamsville isn't the only municipality in New York State that has tackled green projects to reduce runoff into storm sewers. There's also projects in Buffalo, including on Ohio Street, at SUNY Buffalo State and on Niagara Street where more than $20 million of work will continue this year.
But a green infrastructure project on the scale of Williamsville's is unprecedented in such a small suburban municipality, said Murawski.
"It's an innovative project because of the scope and all the different treatments that they did within one project area," he said.
The Spring Street features appear to be functioning as they were designed, experts say.
While lab test results are expected in several weeks, storm water monitoring has found that the "turbidity," or cloudiness, of water entering the Ellicott Creek has decreased, said Murawski.
"Anecdotally, the flow is definitely less for a comparable rain event and the turbidity is definitely less," he said.
Outfall from Spring Street was sampled during four rain events of ¼ inch or more, before and after construction.
The test results are expected to show a decrease in nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous from lawn fertilizer runoff, as well as "total suspended solids," which can include petroleum products, road salt, silt, dirt and brake dust, he said.
That means less pollution upstream for Ellicott Creek, which was the goal when the village made Spring Street part of its "Picture Main Street" initiative in 2011, said Mayor Brian J. Kulpa.
"We're not pouring from the road into the creek," he said. "We're using the earth, plant material and the green wall as a giant filter."
Locally, green infrastructure projects are seen most often in Buffalo, including Ohio Street, which received $12 million in improvements completed in 2015. SUNY Buffalo State's new LEED-certified Technology Building includes rain gardens to capture runoff from the parking lot and a "green roof" fed by rainwater.
Reconstruction of a 4.4 mile stretch of Niagara Street in Buffalo, from South Elmwood Avenue to Ontario Street, includes planters of grasses and planting strips with street trees designed to store rainwater underground instead of letting it pool on sidewalks or driveways. It helps prevent roadway runoff from entering Black Rock Canal or Scajaquada Creek, said Julie Barrett O'Neill, green programs director for the Buffalo Sewer Authority.
"There's a very direct connection between what's happening on the streetscape and what's happening in their waterway," she said. "It's a really strong place to show the connection between what we do on land and what goes into the water."
Work on the final portion of Niagara, the 3.3 miles from Porter Avenue to Ontario Street, is expected to begin this fall. The city is also giving the green infrastructure treatment this year to portions of William Street in the Pratt Willard neighborhood and Northland Avenue.
Williamsville is also not done. South Long Street is also targeted for a $1.5 million makeover to include green infrastructure and streetscape improvements such as better stormwater management to support new development in the southwest corner of the village. Construction of the South Long Community Project is expected to begin this year.
On sunny days East Spring Street now functions as Williamsville's new village square, with the mill as its centerpiece. The mill was purchased last year by Howard and Tara Cadmus and became the home of Sweet Jenny's Ice Cream.
"It's wonderful," said Howard Cadmus of the new village square. "Families love it. It's a great place to congregate and to have events. It exceeds the expectations for how it should function because people are out here every night."