Student, staff initiative strives to preserve University wetland

Maggie Hessel-Mial

In the next few years the opportunity to have class held in a wetland will not be uncommon thanks to a collaboration by University students, staff and faculty aimed at restoring and preserving the Sarita Wetland on the St. Paul campus.

The Sarita Wetland restoration, a project coordinated by the Sustainable Campus Initiative, seeks to improve the campus environment, increase teaching opportunities and provide an area where people can walk around trails and enjoy the wetland.

“This is an excellent educational resource right here in our backyard,” said initiative coordinator Suzanne Savanick. “We can make a difference for our campus.”

The Sarita Wetland was originally a lake that was drained in the early 1900s during development of the area. It wasn’t until a water quality class was held in the wetland that people realized how great the opportunity was to restore the wetland and to use it for classes, Savanick said.

Along with the educational benefits of a natural classroom, Greg Archer, University environmental compliance specialist, said the restoration is also a part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Phase-II rule, which stresses the cleanup and maintenance of runoff areas.

Archer said the EPA rule imposes the need for small municipalities to detect and eliminate illicit discharge that might be running into its natural resources. The Sarita Wetland is positioned in a watershed where it receives all the runoff from the St. Paul campus.

“When it rains, the wetland gets saturated,” Savanick said. “Because the wetland eventually leads to waterways that reach the Mississippi, it’s important to watch what kinds of pollutants go into the wetland.”

Archer also stressed the importance of knowing what goes into the watershed.

“Everything from animal operation manure to salt from the streets could run off into the wetland,” Archer said.

To deal with the EPA compliance rule and learn just what kind of water quality problems the wetland has, students are studying the water and looking into ways to prevent the amount of water saturating the area when it rains.

Tara Carson, a graduate student in water resources science, has volunteered with other University graduate students to do research on the water.

“Many of the problems in Sarita are created by what happens in other parts of campus,” she said. “To improve the wetland, we need to change not only what happens in the wetland, but also around the campus.”

Possible solutions to runoff contamination and excess water include more frequent sweeping of the St. Paul parking lots to decrease pollutants from cars and salt. Another possible solution is building a sediment pond to hold much of the water during rains so Sarita plant life can survive the influx of water.

“The process of studying the water is just as important as the results we find,” Archer said. “The data will not only tell us a lot about the wetland itself, but will also tell us what we need to do to keep pollutants down.”

Original construction of wood chip trails on the wetland were built during Beautiful U Day 2000. The project will also include restorations of the wetland’s native habitats and educational signs on the trails, Savanick said.

Project costs are close to $1 million, she said. With the help of students, faculty and departments on campus, the cost might decrease.

The project might not need as many consultants to work on wetland plans because students have been so involved in research, Savanick said.

Archer said the project would not be a success without the help of Facilities Management, which has been involved both financially and constructively.

“Students designed great monitoring systems for the wetland,” he said. “Facilities Management constructed those boxes for us at no cost.”

Carson said she is very interested in how the restoration turns out after she graduates in December.

“I want to get new students involved to make sure this project continues,” she said. “After the restoration, Sarita will be a place where all students can go.”

 

Maggie Hessel-Mial covers the environment and transportation and welcomes
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