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How Ashland SWCD uses art to teach stormwater management

  • 5 min to read

ASHLAND -- A majestic sea turtle peeks through crystal blue ocean water. Lions and giraffes stand silhouetted against a brilliant African sunset. A blue and yellow parrot sits perched on a tree branch, a rushing jungle waterfall behind him.

As different as they are, each painting shares a common theme -- water and its importance to life and nature. Each piece of public art sitting in Ashland’s Corner Park features an unusual canvas -- a 65 gallon urn-style rain barrel.

The painted rain barrels are part of Rain Beat on Main Street, a public gallery hosted by the Ashland Soil and Water Conservancy District.

“The purpose of the event is to raise money for stormwater management education so people can learn more about how to manage stormwater and keep it clean,” said Becca Vales, urban and education specialist.

The Ashland SWCD partnered with local businesses in the area, who sponsored the rain barrels, and local artists, who volunteered their time to paint them.

The rain barrels were displayed in Loudonville’s Central Park for two weeks, then moved to Corner Park, where they’ll be displayed through this weekend.

“I just thought it would be fun to paint on a rain barrel honestly. I’m usually doing smaller pieces,” said Nataleigh Everett, one of the volunteer artists. “To do something big like that was fun. It was something different.”

While the rain barrels are on display, residents can vote for their favorite barrel and bid on the barrels in an online auction

According to Vales, Ashland County doesn’t have stormwater regulation, so finding creative ways to educate the public is crucial to proper stormwater management. 

“Some areas of Ashland County may not have stormwater drains or they might have a lot of runoff going into the Jerome Fork, so we’re trying to make the public more aware of the ability to keep the runoff clean while it goes back into rivers or streams and the ability to manage stormwater on their property,” she said. “That way if they don’t have a storm drain near them on the road, they don’t have all that water laying in their yard or in their ditch. ”

Rain barrels are a stormwater management tool that catches water as it runs off a rooftop and stores it for later use.

Water from rain barrels can be used to water lawns, gardens and indoor plants. Vales said you can even use the water collected to wash your car.

In addition to potentially lowering a resident’s water bill, collecting water in a rain barrel can help reduce the amount of water that picks up pollutants like pesticides, oil and fertilizers and carries it into waterways.

Vale based the Rain Beat on Main Street off of a similar event, Rain on Main, in Carmel, Indiana. The City of Carmel held its first Rain on Main event five years ago. It's been an annual event ever since.

Like Ashland’s event, the primary purpose of Rain Beat on Main Street was to increase public awareness of the natural water cycle and raise funds for stormwater education.

“The results of multiple local surveys have shown the general public has a difficult time connecting water issues like supply, conservation, and pollution prevention to their daily lives,” said John Thomas, stormwater administrator for the City of Carmel.

Thomas said the event has been a successful way to educate the public in a fun, accessible way.

“Most people want to reduce their negative impacts on our water supply, but it can be an overwhelming issue to tackle. Having a rain barrel at home reminds people that even small steps can add up to big improvements,” he explained. “We’ve auctioned 100 barrels and many more retail barrels have been installed throughout the city.” 

Carmel also encouraged residents to practice water conservation by incentivizing rain barrel installation and other property improvements that benefit water quality and conservation. According to Thomas, the rain barrel cost-share is the most successful incentive program.

“We have provided over five thousand dollars in cost share dollars for 84 rain barrels installed over the past five years,” he said. “The number of barrels submitted for cost share dollars increases each year.”

While rain barrels can be an effective stormwater management tool, Thomas advised that they be drained and stored during the winter months.

The only downfall of beautifying rain barrels are that a few never make it underneath a downspout.

“Every year it’s fun to see how the unique art on each rain barrel resonates with different people," Thomas said. "Most buy them to use them for their intended purpose, while others buy them to decorate their home or office."

Thomas offered the following advice to other communities that may be interested in hosting rain barrel-themed events:

1.  Be patient.  It will take a few years to work things out.

“Although it’s great to generate money, the purpose of the event is water awareness. If you can auction off all your rain barrels at only the starting bid, consider that a success,” he said. “As subsequent events happen and the public is exposed to the concept, the bids will start to go up. We even have bidders who come back each year to purchase a new unique barrel.”

2.  Develop consistent branding and have an auction at a consistent time of year.

3.  Have a water-themed project planned for any proceeds generated from the event.

“We’ve found that many people are more willing to bid on a barrel if they know the proceeds are going to something tangible,” Thomas advised. “It took us 4 years to raise the proceeds to fund high quality water education signage in our parks, but we had consistently communicated that plan to the bidders since the first event.”

4.  Get high quality rain barrels and start the bids at the cost of the barrels.

“This lets bidders know that you can’t find a better deal because they would pay the same price at the store,” he explained. “This also gets them to appreciate the value of the art and be more open to bidding higher than the starting bid.

5.  Use social media to promote the event and use an online auction site to handle the auction process.

6.  Partner with a local arts organization(s) and/or high school/higher education art programs. Reward the artists by making the auction an art competition as well. Use social media to determine the people’s favorite and have an official judging portion of the competition. Offer prizes for the winners.

7.  Start planning early and collaborate with other agencies that can help sponsor the program by donating supplies or labor.

8.  Prepare the barrels to last by priming and sanding them before they are painted and sealing them afterward.

“We supply enough polyurethane to coat the barrels twice after they have been painted. Due to this process, we can confidently vouch for the longevity of the art on the rain barrels,” Thomas said. “I have a barrel from the auction and through three years of Midwestern seasons, my barrel has only lost paint where I hit it with my weedeater.”

9.  Display the barrels for a period of time along a frequently traveled corridor with high foot traffic. This helps people establish a connection with the barrels and hone in on their favorite.

10. Hold the event in conjunction with another well-attended event, such as a Farmer’s Market.            

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Staff reporter focused on education and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. You can reach me at