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Mount Olivet Cemetery was founded in 1858 in what was then a rural part of Washington, D.C., to carry out the Catholic Church’s ministry. Now that the cemetery is almost full, the church is exploring new ways to use the cemetery grounds to answer Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment, Laudato Si', to respect and care for the earth.
This shared interest in the natural world has led to an innovative collaboration with the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington to use non-burial lands to address the growing environmental problem of urban stormwater pollution.
Stormwater pollution is caused when rainwater falls on impervious surfaces—including sidewalks, parking lots and roads—where it mixes with oil, sediment, trash and other pollutants. Stormwater then flows into our cities’ sewer systems and rivers.
Over three billion gallons of stormwater run-off and sewage flow into D.C.’s local rivers each year, making it the fastest growing source of water pollution both in the Chesapeake Bay and worldwide. The stormwater flowing off Mount Olivet Cemetery drains directly into Hickey Run, one of the Anacostia River’s most impaired tributaries and a restoration priority for the District.
Nature Holds a Solution
Replacing, buffering or retrofitting impervious surfaces with water retaining green infrastructure like “rain gardens” allows polluted stormwater to be captured and cleaned. Water is absorbed and filtered by the plants, topsoil, sand and gravel layered within a rain garden.
Approximately 18,000 square feet of impervious surface at Mount Olivet has been replaced with rain gardens in the first project to result from District Stormwater LLC, an innovative joint venture founded by the Conservancy and Encourage Capital, an asset management firm based in New York.
The first-of-its-kind green infrastructure project is expected to prevent the runoff of millions of gallons of stormwater into the nearby Anacostia River, while also serving as a model to other cities around the country.
Designs for the green infrastructure project were aimed to maintain the sanctity of the grounds while also enhancing them. All work conducted in the surveying, planning and implementation of the modifications was done in close collaboration with the cemetery to ensure that the burial sites would not be disturbed, and construction would not disrupt scheduled burials or impede the ability of people coming to visit loved ones buried at the cemetery.
On May 7, 2018, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington joined Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy and Tommy Wells, Director of the D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) for a dedication ceremony and blessing to mark the completion of the project's first phase.
In addition to a second phase of the stormwater retention project, the Archdiocese and the Conservancy are also coordinating on two other environmental enhancement projects at Mount Olivet, which are being implemented in collaboration with two of TNC’s close partners.
Casey Trees and TNC have installed more than 150 new trees at the cemetery and the TKF Foundation will work with TNC to install a commemorative, native pollinator garden and bench. These projects will provide habitat for wildlife, water filtration benefits, and shade and places of rest for visitors.
The Mount Olivet project isn't our first collaboration with a local faith community. In 2015, Hyattsville's First United Methodist Church took action to address the 3 million gallons of stormwater its three-acre parking lot was shedding annually into Wells Run, an Anacostia River tributary.
The Nature Conservancy worked in partnership with the church and the Anacostia Watershed Society to implement a natural stormwater filtration system. Engineers designed and contractors built bioretention facilities in the parking lot that mimic nature in capturing rainwater. Students and volunteers also helped plant native trees and flowering shrubs to create rain gardens.