Groups make efforts to restore wetland

The Sarita wetland serves as the resevoir for all storm water on the St. Paul campus.

Allison Wickler

Amid student housing, facilities plants and the University transitway lies a natural habitat that sets itself apart from the surrounding urban sprawl.

While unknown to many University students, the three-and-a-half acre Sarita wetland on the St. Paul Campus serves many functions, including catching storm water and providing wildlife habitat, but issues with the wetland’s conditions also exist.

A major effort to restore Sarita began when then-graduate student Suzanne Savanick Hansen started the “Sustainable Campus Initiative” in 2000 as part of her graduate work.

“Nobody knew what the Sarita wetland was,” she said, “including me.”

According to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, before Minnesota was settled, there were 18.6 million acres of wetlands in the state, which has since been cut in half.

Over a century ago there even was a Lake Sarita where the Commonwealth Terrace Cooperative now sits.

Near the turn of the century, many wetlands were drained to create farmland and were often regarded as swamps that were health hazards, Hansen said, but recently people have understood the need for wetlands.

Though Hansen’s research on the area has ended, many people at the University continue their own wetland improvement efforts.

Department of Environmental Health and Safety environmental health specialist Scott Alexander said as the campus was built up, little was done to make sure the wetland was adapting to it.

“We’re playing a little bit of catch up,” he said, “but we’re gaining good ground.”

The wetland catches the storm water from the entire St. Paul campus, said Alexander, which causes the water level to fluctuate three to four feet with every rainstorm.

Native plants don’t adapt well to the sudden changes, he said, so the diversity of plant life in the wetland has decreased.

The water also is not always of the best quality, said third-year water resources science graduate student Erica Schram.

Schram, who did storm water quality monitoring at Sarita her first two years in the program, said sediment and waste from fields and the state fair grounds goes into the wetland along with water, which affects the natural life and also flows into the Mississippi River.

Schram is also part of the Water Resources Students in Action, which participated in wetland cleanups and is working to create signage to label the wetland and tell some of its history.

To help the storm water problems, Alexander said the University created a forebay, a large sediment basin to catch storm water and feed it more slowly into the wetland, which stabilizes the water levels.

This spring, a basin in the sheep pasture will be built, which is planned to catch about a third of the campus’ storm water, sending it into the ground to replenish groundwater instead of into Sarita, he said.

Fisheries and wildlife professor emeritus Peter Jordan said the wetland is big enough to be a valuable teaching tool, in addition to restoring it for its other ecological functions.

He and other professors have already used Sarita to teach about water management and wildlife, and many want to turn the wetland into a better outdoor classroom space.

“We are not trying to promote Sarita as a picnic ground or a park,” he said. “We want it to be part of the academic resources of the University.”

He said the University is fortunate to have the wetland on campus.

“Not many college campuses would have a bona fide wooded wetland,” he said.