Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Ten-Year Journey Gives Birth to School Rain Gardens

By Sage Passi

Students at Crosswinds Middle School planting a rain garden on their school grounds.
Photo credit Sage Passi

It’s been “a long and winding road” to clean water... When I first started working for the Watershed District in 2001, I don’t think I even knew what a rain garden was. I was fixed on wetlands, shorelines and native plants. But “impervious” was becoming a new vocabulary word and run-off was soon to be a household term. 

One parking lot in particular stood out in my mind at that time on the East Side of St. Paul. It was soon to be forgotten, however, vanishing like a ghost just like Ames Lake before it had been displaced for forty years from the 1960’s to 2000.

An infamous parking lot, built on top of Ames Lake for the Phalen Shopping Center,
was torn down in 2000 to make way for Ames Lake to be "reborn".

In a major miracle, the parking lot that was built on top of a lake was removed and the lake was “rescued” and returned to its rightful home. It was a first in the nation. We were all impressed. The news even traveled all the way to China.

Ames Lake was reclaimed and restored after the shopping mall and parking lot were removed.
Photo credit Sage Passi

It was one parking lot down, a million to go. So when I drove to Crosswinds Middle School on the outskirts of Woodbury in 2007 and began investigating the possibility of a rain garden on the site, I was definitely a new kid on the block.

Crosswinds Middle School's future rain garden site.
Photo credit Sage Passi

Crosswinds, a sparkling new school in Woodbury, sat proud and confident on the edge of the mitigated wetlands. Battle Creek Lake to the north lay glistening in the distance. Memories of the Jordan Horse Ranch pasture that once sat on this corner of land were sadly only soft ghost whinnies in the wind. In their place rested a school lot with a large impervious parking lot.

As I perused the borders of the Crosswinds complex, I pictured the storm water run-off coming from its rooftop, stared at the catch basins in the parking lot and imagined the school on a rainy day. Somehow at that moment I knew that my relaxed summers were long behind me. There was work to be done. This school was getting a rain garden - two of them in fact. 

Watershed and Washington Conservation District staff work with school grounds staff
to do a soil augering and site assessment.

Photo credit Sage Passi

It was my first experience working with a team like this made up of Ann, the school principal, Anna Barker, a teacher, Jim, the ground staff person, Julie Vigness-Pint, our cost-share coordinator, Shawn Tracy, our technical advisor, and Jay Riggs, Washington Conservation District Manager. The stars were in alignment. Two large rain gardens were installed in the school yard in 2008.


Crosswinds rain gardens.
Photo credit Sage Passi

It would be nearly a decade before a similar configuration of action figures would implement the planning process for our Legacy funded Clean Water Grant School grant projects.

Currently, we are only weeks away from the shovel going into the ground. Five new rain gardens will be installed in School District 622 this summer and two next summer in District 623. This is thanks to the efforts of many people, including a supportive group of Barr Engineering engineers and landscape architects and other staff (leads - Erin Anderson – Wenz, Matt Kumka and Nathan Campeau) and guidance from our Board of Water and Soil Resources representative Mary Peterson.

This aerial view highlights the future location for Weaver Elementary School's
rain garden that will capture runoff from its parking lot.

Principals Kevin Wolfe, Pangjua Xiong, Becky Berkas, Sue Bartling and Tyrone Brookins are in support of the projects on their sites. District 622 Facility Grounds staff (Mike Boland, Mark Renstrom and Todd Lieser) have been very supportive. There is a group of engaged teachers and Ramsey County Master Gardeners waiting in the wings to involve students in the planting and care of the gardens and the District will hire assistance for maintenance in the summer time. A Clean Water grant and District funds will be used to finance the projects.

Matt Kumka, Barr Engineering, Mike Boland and Mark Renstrom from District 622
and Randee Edmundson discuss the design for Harmony Learning Center's rain garden.

Photo credit Sage Passi

The rain gardens will be installed by a contractor this summer at Harmony Learning Center, Maplewood Middle School and Weaver Elementary and planted in the fall by students with support of Ramsey County Master Gardeners. The project manager is Paige Alborg from the Watershed District. Next summer, rain gardens at Roseville Area Middle School in Little Canada and Central Park Elementary School will be installed and planted by students in the fall of 2017. We're still finalizing our sixth school location. 

The run-off from this Harmony Learning Center parking lot will drain to a rain garden instead of heading downstream to impaired Kohlman Lake.
Photo credit Sage Passi

Clean Water Grants for Schools

We spent two years assessing all the public schools in the District and prioritizing these sites with a $50,000 Legacy Accelerated Implementation Grant. We then narrowed our choices to eleven rain garden sites and prioritized those further based on their potential stormwater quality benefit, constructability, property owner concessions and educational value . 

Last winter we went back to the schools with preliminary concept plans and determined which schools were most committed to completing the projects. Soil borings and utility locates were conducted over the summer on six sites. Barr staff did preliminary estimates of the volume of water that could be retained, total phosphorus and TSS (total suspended solids) removal and prepared planning level estimates. 

In the fall of 2015 we wrote and secured a $150,000 Clean Water Partnership Grant for the construction of six projects over the next three years. In early winter seventy-five percent completed designs were presented to facility grounds staff and principals for their input. In the end five projects were chosen for completion over the summer of 2016 and next summer with a sixth project still to be determined. Construction will take place this summer with plantings in the fall. 

We have begun the process of engaging classrooms at Harmony, Weaver and Maplewood Middle School in educational activities that will complement the plantings for next fall.

Students check out a rain garden in the Casey Lake neighborhood in preparation for their own school project.
Photo credit Sage Passi

It's been a long haul leading up to these projects. Building a base of support has involved years of learning the ropes about coordinating teams, studying and improving the engineering and landscaping of rain gardens, getting familiar with native plants and cultivars, amassing and training a group of Master Gardeners to help students and residents build demonstration rain gardens in neighborhoods and at churches and developing curriculum and hands-on activities to go with the rain garden construction process.

Master Gardeners and students at L 'Etoile du Nord get a lesson from Ryan Johnson about soil auguring to determine the rate of infiltration and the type of soil.
Photo credit Sage Passi

L'Etoile du Nord fourth graders lift a heavy concrete slab
buried beneath their rain garden site.

Photo credit Sage Passi

Throw in a decade of involving kids in shoreline and habitat restorations at Lake Phalen, Keller Lake, Keller Golf Course and school yards and a couple of practice runs installing a small rain garden at L’Etoile du Nord and a rain garden at Battle Creek Middle School and there you have it.

Excavating a residential rain garden in the Battle Creek neighborhood.
Photo credit Sage Passi

I was pretty cautious about installing large-scale projects on school grounds. I wasn’t sure our school districts were ready for this level of engagement, or us for that matter. It’s a big commitment on the part of everyone. In some ways having a rain garden is akin to having a baby. You have to be prepared for the long haul.

I have been pleasantly surprised and encouraged by the level of support and commitment on the part of everyone I have interacted with in both School District 622 and 623. That makes a huge difference. People are getting more used to the idea of rain gardens. They see them in action in numerous places and have started to recognize and become familiar with the role they can play in helping to improve our water quality. For the light to turn green, I think I've been waiting for the courage, the experience, the partnerships and the stars to align again. It’s going to be fun seeing these rain gardens be born!

It takes a village… they say.

Battle Creek Middle School students team up to get the job done.
Photo credit Sage Passi

No comments:

Post a Comment