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Rain Garden Sign

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Summer Storms, How Bittersweet

Meet Stephen Elliott, our new Water Outreach Specialist and learn about the Landscape Makeover Program!

June 29, 2023


Grumbling clouds distract me from my email composition. Conflict muddies my thoughts as I watch the first clear drops patter the ground outside my window. I have always enjoyed a boisterous summer storm, and after a dry month of May, I know the land needs to drink. But…I also know that this time of year, there are many small flags flanking sidewalks and driveways across the state, and I don’t mean the red, white, and blue announcing beach season, honoring those that gave their lives for this country, or those celebrating the birth of this nation of ours. I am thinking of those flags meant as a warning, announcing to people that they should not walk barefoot, lay on the grass, or let their pets sniff around for relief because “this area has been treated!” I guess we should be thankful though. There are not even flags or warnings for most of the harmful products being sprinkled on the ground during peak agriculture and lawn care season, and I cannot help but list everything being washed into the streams, lakes, rivers, and ocean with every deluge. Unfortunately, there is no blue pill or option to forget (I might be out of a job if I did). So, how do I once again enjoy a good cumulonimbus? I will need a lot of help.

Enter Millie Defeo.

After serving New Jersey for 26 years as a principal environmental specialist for the Department of Environmental Protection, Millie retired in 2018. Altruistic and relentless, Millie decided it was time to make way for a younger generation to take the DEP reins but has not relinquished her role as an advocate for a healthy planet and a steward of her land. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Millie at her home in Vineland. She attended a Landscape Makeover Program Rain Garden 101 session in 2022 with the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA), the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC), and the Rutgers Cooperative Extension and received a free design session. Experts consulted with Millie using satellite imagery and other tools to determine the best location and appropriate plants for her garden based on soil and other conditions. Millie decided to take the plan a step further constructing a model of her future garden and tweaking the placement of her menu of native species to ensure each received their fair share of the spotlight. After some issues with obtaining the services of an excavator, her determination paid off this spring when the garden was complete. Her final touch was to place a small sign showcasing each species of plant. Visitors, including me, were already in awe of her robust vegetable and fruit garden, but now they have even more to admire and ask questions about.

As special as Millie is, she is not the only one doing her part to ensure that the cocktail of chemicals we humans put on our lawns, farms, and roadways do not make their way into our waterways. Instead, the water cascading off these environmental champions’ roofs, driveways, and lawns will be naturally filtered and a large amount of what would be runoff will infiltrate into the ground. As I take over the water outreach position at PPA, there have been over forty green infrastructure projects installed in partnership with local municipalities and private organizations, and over forty homeowners across South Jersey have taken advantage of the Landscape Makeover Program with approximately $15,000 worth of rebates being issued, Millie included. But, after meeting some of the champions of these projects, I know they are not in it for the money. They have recognized the issue and decided to siphon a few drops from the billions of gallons of stormwater runoff impairing New Jersey’s waterways and contributing to increased flooding. They also provide habitat for pollinators and add aesthetic value to their neighborhoods.

I began doing water outreach for PPA and ANJEC in June of this year following a term of service with the Americorps NJ Watershed Ambassador Program. Although I work out of the PPA headquarters, the position is split between PPA and ANJEC because their general goals align, but also because they are partners on numerous Delaware River Watershed Initiative programs within the Kirkwood Cohansey cluster. Through funding from the William Penn Foundation, projects like the Landscape Makeover Program focus on reducing stormwater runoff with the overall goal of improving the health of local waterways in order to subsequently improve the health of the Delaware River. Now that I have officially joined PPA and ANJEC, I want to thank my predecessors for their hard work and promise to continue building the team necessary to clean up New Jersey’s most vital natural resource. And…with all this help, I hope to enjoy the summer cumulonimbus clouds once again without reservation.

To learn more about the Landscape Makeover Program, Stormwater Runoff, Green Infrastructure, and whether your town currently qualifies for homeowner rebates, please visit South Jersey Water Savers – Protecting the Kirkwood Cohansey Aquifer (sjwatersavers.org).

If your town does not yet qualify to receive rebates, please check back with us. The program continues to grow every year.

One response to “Summer Storms, How Bittersweet”

  1. Mike Kaliss says:

    Great blog post Stephen! I live in the Cooper River Watershed and do what I can to encourage my neighbors to plant native species, plant pollinator friendly plants, reduce pesticide/fertilizer use and help slow/filter rain runoff. Wonderful to read of the larger community working towards those goals.

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