Going With the Flow
By replacing an overwhelmed storm drain with a newly created native habitat, WAC groundskeeper and biology student Chris Rainer just made the campus a little greener.
For years every time it rained hard enough, the water flowing past the east side of the Casey Academic Center near the loading dock would flood, overwhelming the inadequate storm drain and often finding its way to into the campus bookstore. But where other people saw a recalcitrant drainage system, groundskeeper and Washington College biology major Chris Rainer saw an opportunity.
Instead of enlarging the storm drain—which even if it could handle the water flow would still carry gallons of sediment and polluted runoff into the Chester River—Rainer believed the area could be turned into a natural bio-filter. By rerouting the water and slowing it down, giving it time to drain through a filter of stones, native grasses, and plants, the system would help clean the runoff of its sediment and nutrients, stop the flooding, and support a lovely native garden all at the same time.
“I enjoy working maintenance with landscaping, because you get to become more intimate with the environment,” Rainer says. “I’ve been watching this spot for ten years and slowly working on getting it on the list to be fixed and thinking about how to do it. A lot of this was made possible by Joe Case [WAC’s landscape manager] letting me run with the idea.”
This summer, Rainer was finally able to transform his concept into reality. After removing a low berm of soil that was meant to guide rainwater into the storm drain but mostly succeeded in only trapping it, Case, Rainer, and groundskeeper Adam Gannon created an area for the water to more naturally flow, down and away from the low area near the CAC.
The result is an elegant, curving swale of small river stone, bordered on its sloping sides with some original, non-native plantings like ornamental grasses, now supplemented with native species. Among the natives planted so far are two types of switchgrass, fothergilla (sometimes called witch alder), a river birch tree, red-twig dogwood, and winterberry. Eventually, Rainer says, he’d love to add some of the Eastern Shore’s beautiful flowering perennials like marsh hibiscus, Joe-Pye weed, and black-eyed Susan (the state flower).
“I think people have the idea that native plants are dull or boring or ugly,” Rainer says. “This is a good opportunity to showcase them. I wanted something that was going to be natural and fit in, something that would make you feel good to walk beside. Maybe the students can have a moment of Zen peacefulness here, sit down and have a cup of coffee and talk.”
Completed in early August, the new habitat was already attracting butterflies, insects, and at least one frog. It’s exactly the kind of stormwater management that the Chesapeake Bay watershed needs. By slowing the rainwater and filtering it, the natural buffer removes the nutrients, sediment, and runoff polluted with oil and pesticides, all of which are choking the watershed’s tributaries, including the Chester River.
Rainer has been a WAC groundskeeper for ten years. For about eight of those years, he’s been working toward his undergraduate degree in biology, as well as his secondary education certification. He’s on target to complete both and graduate at the end of the fall 2014 semester. Eventually, he hopes to become a high school biology teacher.