About 20 public works employees, surrounded by backhoes and other heavy equipment, had their hands in the soil at the Parsons Complex last week, creating a sizable “rain garden,” which is designed to clean water runoff and lessen the amount of pollutants that end up in the Wepawaug River.

The sprawling garden of rock, shrubs, trees and perennials stretches from the front steps of the Parsons Complex around to a side entrance, creating not just a functional filter for water runoff, but an aesthetically pleasing bit of landscaping at the city offices.

Steve Johnson, the city’s open space manager, explained that the money — about $110,000 — for the huge garden came from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, through the Southwest Conservation District.

The Southwest Conservation District is a non-profit conservation agency established in 1946. It works with other public and private agencies to protect land and water resources in the Fairfield and New Haven County area.

The District had been working with Milford officials on a smaller project when the DEEP clean water funds became available, increasing the scope of the work, Johnson explained.

The state money came with a stipulation that the city match some of the funds, but that matching could be done with labor instead of money. That’s where the public works department came in.

“There are two crews out here now,” Tom Hunt, highway and parks department foreman, said this past Wednesday. “About 20 men.”

Hunt said the department started excavating the site last week, and hopes to finish the job by this weekend. Laying down mulch will be one of the last steps.

A rain garden?

“A rain garden is a shallow depression that is planted with deep-rooted native plants and grasses,” according to raingardennetwork.com. “The garden should be positioned near a runoff source like a downspout, driveway or sump pump to capture rainwater runoff and stop the water from reaching the sewer system.”

Milford’s new rain garden is basically that, designed to catch the water that comes from the Parsons Complex roof and the many impervious surfaces, like the parking lots and sidewalks around the building, and filter it before it runs into the road or into the nearby duck pond, and into the Wepawaug River.

The garden is designed to clean the water and to lessen the amount of water that flows from the site.

Oliver Gaffney of Site Systems in Trumbull, a landscape design and construction company, said the rain garden includes five to six dozen trees and shrubs, 500 to 600 perennials, all native to the area and designed to thrive in wet and dry conditions.

There’s about 30 tons of River Jack stone, which Hunt said will look even more stunning when rainwater has cleaned off the dust that covered it this week, leaving the subtle colors of the stone to show through.

Roman Mrozinski, executive director of the Southwest Conservation District, said the garden serves a number of purposes; from cleaning the water to providing a habitat for wildlife, and it will serve as an example for developers looking to create designs to that result in minimal impact on the environment.

Just a start

The Parsons Complex rain garden is just one component of the project aimed at lessening the impact on Milford’s waterways, and ultimately the region’s waterways.

When the garden is complete, the project will move across the street to the City Hall duck pond, where there will be a buffer strip containing some of the same types of plants at Parsons rain garden. The efforts there will help, in part, to keep some of the duck and goose feces from finding its way into the water.

Catch basin improvements are also part of the plan to keep more pollutants from the waterways. And there may be additional planting behind the Milford Public Library, where there is a large amount of paved ground next to the city harbor.

The ultimate goal is to keep the region’s waterways clean to promote fish life and recreation, and a healthier environment over all.

The Southwest Conservation District is involved in a number of projects in the region to improve water quality.

“It’s a start,” Mrozinski said.