This express lane is closed

A slow moving road in southern Costa Rica

When I headed off to Costa Rica for three months during graduate school, I had visions of wild adventures, late nights out dancing, and non-stop action. All of these visions quickly dissolved once I actually arrived in the country. It took me half a day to travel 75 miles from San Jose to San Isidro de El General, where I would be studying on a small farm outside of town for a month. Upon arriving, which in and of itself is a much longer story than I’m making it out to be, the owner of the finca, Ed, greeted me by saying, “Oh, I didn’t think you were coming until next week. Well, here’s a tomato and some cheese to eat and there’s the cabin where you’ll be staying. See you tomorrow.”

They say that people down there go by “Costa Rican time,” which basically means that things will happen when they happen. If you’re planning to meet someone at 10am, he might show up around 11am, or he might not come at all because his cow got loose and he spent the morning chasing it down. While staying with another family down in Agua Buena, I spent 45 minutes walking to the nearby school to teach a class, only to be greeted by the kids on their way home, “The teacher’s husband got sick, so we don’t have school today.”

At first, the slow-paced Central American lifestyle drove me crazy. “Doesn’t anything ever happen around here?” I wondered. After a while, however, I grew to enjoy the relaxed pace, as well as the fact that people didn’t waste time rushing around doing things that didn’t really need to be done. Upon returning to the U.S., the pace of life suddenly seemed frantic. Everyone was driving as fast as they could drive, sprinting from one meeting or appointment to the next, and always parting with the words, “I wish I could talk longer, but I’ve really got to go!” Even today eight years later, I often find myself yearning for those slower days, and especially when I’m driving on the road.

Something about driving turns ordinary people in ogres. They drive fast, roll through stop signs and flip fingers with abandon. In an interesting parallel, this is much the same way that stormwater runoff behaves on our roadways. For obvious reasons, engineers design our roads to drain rain as quickly as possible. Through a mixture of ditches, swales and underground pipes, they get water off the pavement as quickly as possible before someone’s car ends up under water. Unfortunately, stormwater runoff is more like an American driver than a Costa Rican farmer. It rushes through the ditches and pipes paying no heed to the dirt and debris it is picking up along the way, nor to the fact that it is pushing all this junk right into our favorite lakes and rivers. Until recently, little attempt was made to slow down stormwater runoff from state and county highways, but now in Washington County, as well as other parts of the metro, that is starting to change.

Speeding along Highway 13 heading south through Lake Elmo, most drivers would never notice that something is different about the road other than the fact that there is now a turn lane at the intersection of 15th Street. While building this turn lane, however, the county actually installed stormwater infiltration trenches along the road to close down the stormwater express lane. They look like regular ditches but have a rock substrate underneath that holds runoff water from the road until it has a chance to soak into the ground. There is never standing water at the intersection, and because the rock layer is covered with a sand and compost mixture, turf is able to grow on the top. “This was an affordable option for treating stormwater in a linear project and it didn’t require the county to purchase land,” says Jacob Gave, a design engineer with the county. They might go unnoticed by passing motorists, but the new infiltration trenches do an excellent job of taking stormwater off the fast track and helping to recharge our groundwater as well.

There is something to be said about the speed and efficiency with which we Americans accomplish projects small and large. At the same time, we could learn a thing or two from our Costa Rican counterparts who know that faster is not always better. Sometimes it’s best to let stormwater runoff take the slow road home. It might soak into the ground along the way, but it will get to our lakes and rivers eventually and be cleaner because of the journey. We too can benefit from taking the slow road home now and then. Whether we drive a little slower because we’re enjoying the fall colors, stop to chat with a friend, or even chase down a loose cow, we’ll still get home eventually.
As any Costa Rican can tell you, things will happen when they happen.