City seeks neighborhood 'guardians' to adopt its new rain gardens

City seeks neighborhood 'guardians' to adopt its new rain gardens
A rain garden at Pierce and Waller streets. | Photos: Teresa Hammerl/Hoodline
By Teresa Hammerl - Published on May 07, 2019.

In March, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) launched Rain Guardians, a new program that allows neighbors to "adopt" one of the city's 60 rain gardens, keeping them free of trash and debris during storms. 

The goal for the gardens is to help capture more than 10 million gallons of stormwater per year, preventing it from flooding streets and overwhelming the sewer system. 

Rain gardens are typically depressed below street level, so that stormwater can flow in and be treated by special soils and drought-tolerant native plants. By absorbing and cleaning the water, the gardens help keep the sewer system in peak condition. The program has other perks for the local environment, too.

"There are so many co-benefits, like beautification of the neighborhood and habitat creation," says Polly Crocker, who oversees the program. She said that she has even spotted butterflies and hummingbirds in the gardens.

Image: Rain Guardians

The gardens have been put up throughout different San Francisco neighborhoods as part of new streetscape projects, including the the Cesar Chavez Streetscape Improvement Project, the Wiggle Neighborhood Green Corridor project and the Chinatown Spofford Living Alley project.

There are currently about 60 total gardens, 38 of which have been adopted by neighbors. But upcoming Hunters Point and Candlestick Point projects will raise the total, with 300 new rain gardens needing care by 2022. Since the SFPUC only has the budget to maintain the gardens on a quarterly basis, it's asking neighbors concerned about the environment to help fill the gap. 

The goal is to support all of the city's eight watersheds, areas of land from which stormwater drains to a shared body of water, like the Pacific Ocean or the San Francisco Bay. By keeping the gardens clean, Rain Guardians can help prevent trash and debris from entering the sewers, and ultimately, these bodies of water. 

A rain garden at Fell and Divisadero streets.

While Guardians are issued a safety vest, gloves, and a trash picker for their work, the job of Rain Guardian "is not just trash-picking," Crocker said. The agency plans to offer classes on how to weed the gardens the appropriate way, and host planting days to encourage active garden maintenance. 

For now, though, the agency is asking volunteers not to weed the rain gardens, especially since many of the drought-tolerant plants can easily be confused with weeds. "They look dead a lot of the time," Crocker said, laughing.

The program also ensures that "people are keeping an eye on the gardens," Crocker said, noting that a volunteer intervened after noticing that rain gardens on Valencia Street were being struck by cars.

Cleaning the gardens can be a bit of a challenge, as the city urges caretakers to follow safety guidelines and pick up trash and debris from the sidewalk, instead of from the roadway.

Leaves and other natural materials can go in the green compost bin, but it might not always be an option to take all of the debris home to throw away. 

3-1-1 can pick up hypodermic needles, construction debris, toxic materials, or large objects dumped in the gardens. But for now, Guardians are being asked to leave other items they can't take home to toss — like dog poop — in place, where they can be addressed by SFPUC's quarterly crews. 

"We're still figuring out where to put all the trash," Crocker said, noting that volunteers are already sending pictures of bizarre objects they've found in the gardens. At some point, she said, rain guardians will have the opportunity to upload those pictures to a maintenance log. And she's thinking about starting a "what’s the craziest thing you found in the garden" contest.

Another rain garden at Page and Pierce streets.

Crocker said her hope is to host quarterly events for volunteers, possibly in partnership with the existing Adopt-a-Drain program, which also aims to prevent trash and debris from entering waterways. 

"We are also thinking about an 'adopt-as-a-group' feature," Crocker said.

In the meantime, she hopes community members will get involved. If it's not a good fit, "you can always unadopt them," she said.