Creating and restoring wetlands

from The Independent
September 13, 2008

GRAYSON — There’s a swampy area behind East Carter Middle School, down the slope next to the softball field.

A pool of ankle-deep water, clouded with algae, is surrounded by plantains, sedge and cattails. A couple of weathered tree trunks are wedged into the murky bottom.

Although it may sound unsavory, not only is there no plan to do anything about it, a crew of scientists, naturalists and students spent Thursday at the school creating a similar marsh right next to it.

Biologists refer to the marshes as wetlands and consider them valuable components of the natural world. Wetlands nurture native plant species and provide food and habitat for animals. They assist in filtering potential pollutants from rainwater.

And perhaps most important to the school, they provide a permanent, virtually maintenance-free outdoor laboratory for science classes.

Sixth-grade science teacher Beverly McDavid invited the Eastern Wetland Restoration Institute to the school to build the second wetland. She and her students built the first, with some help, last year. McDavid launched that project after coming to East Carter from the Elliott County district, where she built a wetland with her students a few years ago.

The institute is a hands-on program taught by experts; participants learn the skills they’ll need to return to their home communities to build wetlands there, McDavid said.

The week-long institute drew representatives of 14 agencies in nine states. Business, non-profit and government agency workers worked with experts such Tom Biebighauser, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist and director of the institute.

A contractor dug out the wetland and then institute participants seeded it with native grasses and planted native species above the eventual waterline.

The new wetland and the one McDavid built last year differ in one important respect: the existing one depends chiefly on surface runoff and water from a system of drainage tiles while the new one will fill mostly from the bottom up with groundwater, Biebighauser said.

Both will serve as natural water-treatment systems. Runoff from the ballfield, for instance, contains nutrients from fertilizers. Previously the nutrients would end up in streams as pollutants.

Now the wetlands will filter out sediment and hold in the fertilizers, which will nourish the natural marsh vegetation. “They’re like a big sponge, a big coffee filter,” Biebighauser said. The algae on last year’s wetland is a sign that the water is holding nutrients, he said.

Frogs and ducks eventually will eat the algae and it will dissipate.

The water and plant life provide habitat for ducks, bats, salamanders, dragonflies and a myriad other species. However, the pest one would expect to encounter in a swamp is virtually absent.

Have you gotten any mosquito bites out here?” Biebighauser asks. “Probably not,” he says, answering his own question. The reason? Dragonflies and other predators gobble up the skeeters while they’re still larvae.

Wetlands have a definite place in protecting water quality, said Tony Able, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta. Excessive nutrients are a problem for U.S. waterways.

Able, a participant in the institute, hopes to return to Atlanta equipped to work with colleagues in the EPA and other agencies to build and restore more wetlands.

“A lot of wetlands are being lost, but the consciousness of their importance is returning,” he said.

There is money available for wetlands restoration, including state, federal and private funding. The Carter project was funded through the Steele-Reese Foundation; Biebighauser has taken on projects with money from Ducks Unlimited, Eastern Kentucky PRIDE and other non-profit agencies.

McDavid brought this year’s sixth-graders out to help with planting and will continue to use the wetland as an outdoor lab. Her students will learn about soil types, drainage properties, ecosystems and the plants and animals living there.

The project makes an ideal classroom, she said. Even kids who are troublesome in school turn into enthusiastic researchers when she puts a net in their hand and tells them to scoop up some bugs. “Kids love to be outside and they have such a natural curiosity.”

The wetlands are designed with students in mind. Among other things, the water level is about 12 inches, so it’s safe to wade in.

Also, Biebighauser pointed out, in an era of expensive fuel, many schools are curtailing field trips. “Wetlands bring the field trip to the school.”

McDavid recalled one of last year’s sixth-graders who e-mailed her several times during the summer with updates on how well the wetland was filling in.

Taylor Burnett, now 12 and in seventh grade, was the student. Taylor kept tabs on the project over the summer while at school for basketball practice. During breaks she’d scoot over to the project site to check it out and look for birds in the bird boxes.

Never all that interested in science before, Taylor now is intrigued and believes other students will be, too. “They’ll get to see what science is all about.”

The institute also made a third wetland several yards away in a wooded area. In time a trail will connect it to the school grounds and students will be able to study the plants and animals there, too.


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