success stories

An Ecological-Church Success Story

Parish Builds Wetland on Church Property in Environmental Effort
By Ed Langlois
Catholic News Service

With help from the city of Portland, St. Philip Neri Parish is following a biblical mandate to care for the Earth by building a small wetland on church property.

Supported by a $5,000 grant and plenty of volunteer labor, the community will build a vegetated trench to absorb parking lot and building runoff, preventing the tainted water from reaching local waterways.

The 5,000-square-foot sponge-like ecosystem, planned for completion by November, is part of a parish commitment to follow recent church teaching on the environment.

In 2001, the Catholic bishops of the Pacific Northwest issued a pastoral letter on the Columbia River, asking communities to care for the 1,200-mile waterway. The bishops cited Scripture passages in which humans are called to be caretakers of the Earth.

"This project flows from the bishops' letter, which says, 'Let's be good stewards,'" said Patrick Murphy, a member of the southeast Portland parish and a civil engineer who is managing the plan.

The city's 1930s-era storm water and sewage pipes create a problem during a substantial rain. Because the systems are combined in many places, heavy precipitation on a city increasingly covered with asphalt and buildings can cause an overflow. That sends untreated runoff and even raw sewage into the Willamette and Columbia rivers.

The city is upgrading the pipes and the sewage plant. And home and business owners have been urged to disconnect building downspouts from under-street storm pipes, rerouting runoff onto lawns. The absorbing and filtering "bioswales," which create small natural areas, are another innovation. A "swale" is a piece of land that is lower and usually marshier and damper than surrounding areas.

"We are aiming to prevent parking lot pollutants from going into the Willamette River during overflow," explained Murphy.

With 33,000 square feet of parking lot space, St. Philip Neri is a significant source of runoff. The lot sheds more than 800,000 gallons of water per year.

Pollutants in storm water include soot and hydrocarbons, copper from brake pads, zinc, dissolved metals, motor oil and other petroleum products, phosphorus, nitrogen, antifreeze, rubber from tires, cadmium and animal waste.

Roots and bacteria can break down some pollutants and plants actually use other compounds as fertilizer.

The bioswale, a serpentine ditch on the southwest corner of the parish grounds, will be full of native plants that will take up the water and create habitat for birds and other wildlife. A decorative fence will surround the created wetland.

Future plans call for pipes or planters that will carry water from the roofs of parish buildings to the bioswale.

"Retrofitting existing development is going to be tricky," said Amber Marra of the city's Community Watershed Stewardship Program. "So stewardship projects like St. Philip Neri, where individuals and organizations take responsibility for the rain that falls on their property and divert it in creative, innovated ways, are very encouraging."

Like many Oregon churches, St. Philip Neri has begun focusing on environmental issues as a way to live out faith.

"I do think more groups, and ones not traditionally environmentally oriented, are getting involved with watershed stewardship," Marra told the Catholic Sentinel, Portland's archdiocesan newspaper.

"People are more aware of their surroundings and the differences that individuals can make on the small and large scale," Marra added.

This year, St. Philip Neri was one of 30 applicants for the $45,000 pool of funds.