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Got A Hurricane? Get A Garden!

August 04 2014 | Ocean Friendly Gardens, GAP,
by Paul Herzog

As part of their 2011 annual planning process, the Surfrider Club at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNCW) wanted to implement at least one of each of the Surfrider suite of programs. They had not done an Ocean Friendly Garden installation. Club member Kathryn Sisler Waple stepped up to take the lead. She and Club Advisor Sean Ahlum, (the Club’s founder and Surfrider-Cape Fear Chapter member), were keen to do a high-profile project. So they started talking with community members. Sean does yoga as well as shops at a food coop in a popular shopping center that was under-going renovation (blue-roofed building pictured at right - pictures by Erin Carey). Hundreds of people shop at the center every day, and thousands drive by on the adjacent highway.

The shopping center’s owner had plans for ornately re-doing part of a large, grassy lawn area in between the center and a defunct movie theater-plus-parking lot (the area with the earth mover pictured at right). Sean shared information with him about the benefits of doing an OFG. By mid-2012, Kathyrn had graduated, become employed at the center’s Tidal Creek Coop and joined the Surfrider-Cape Fear Chapter. She brought the concept to the Co-op’s General Manager, Craig Harris, and he liked it (and posted great info on why the project was needed on the Coop's website).

At it turned out, UNCW owned the theater and parking lot on the other side of the grassy lawn. They had stormwater regulations with which to comply if they wanted to build on the property. Stormwater runoff from the theater and parking lot was cutting channels into the grassy area, flooding out part of the adjacent highway that runs through town, and polluting nearby Hewletts Creeks. Wilmington, like rest of the country, has had a history of removing natural systems of filtering water and buffering against storms and flooding: (a) maritime forests along creeks and between the coastline and hills and (b) barrier islands along the coast. Locals like Sean want to be able to swim in and fish from the Creek (which also is required by the federal Clean Water Act: drinkable, fishable, swimmable).

A UNCW employee, Sean figured out he needed to talk with UNCW’s Chancellor of Business Affairs as well as with the Real Estate Committee - and found support from them for the idea. (UNCW is one the top three colleges in the world in marine biology.) So during 2013, Sean went with UNCW staff and Craig on a campus “speaking tour” to talk up the proposal. UNCW Environmental Studies (EVS) students wrote a letter to the University administration, explaining the multiple learning benefits: hands-on experience, a living laboratory, and a practical solution. The administration liked the concept.

Sean learned about the Environmental Enhancement Grant Program (money from mitigation funds paid by the Smithfield Company from environmental damage (from pig farming)), which is aimed at helping clean up environment such as nearby Hewletts Creeks. Sean was directed to Erin Carey, Watershed Coordinator for the City of Wilmington’s  Stormwater Services. Erin had previously heard about the project idea from Co-op staff and that it was not yet off-the-ground. Sean told Erin about the EEG Program, and she wrote a successful application for $3,000. Kathryn and Sean also connected with EVS lecturers, Dr. Roger Shew and his colleague, Dr. Anthony Schneider, who wrote a successful $3,000 grant from UNCW's Center for Teaching Excellence program. Then, in 2013, Erin met North Carolina State University (NCSU) Professor Dr. Bill Hunt at one of Dr. Hunt's trainings. Dr. Hunt is with NCSU's Urban Stormwater Management unit in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering and a national leader in natural solutions. Dr. Hunt liked the site because a simple, effective design could be implemented by his senior-level students. Dr. Hunt agreed to include the project in the list the students could choose from for their senior design project.

A team of students found the project very interesting! They both surveyed the land and created a design. In addition to all the elements to mimic the original conditions of the site, the design called for an outlet drain to a stormwater pipe in case there was a rainstorm of 4 inches or more. The most polluted part of a storm, known as the “first flush,” comes in the first 1-2 inches.

So in April 2014, construction began:

  • Earth moving was provided at a discount by Dragonfly Pond Works and paid for out of the Heal Our Wateways budget. Supervision of that work was done by Jon Page, who works with Dr. Hunt.
  • UNCW's roles included: Dr. Shew's class in Environmental Field Methods did a study on the soils and infiltration rates of the site; UNCW's Landscape Services (LS) was key to soil storage/removal; LS and Dr. Shew collaborated on acquiring native plants; UNCW engaged in planning and even design discussions.
  • Cuts were made in parking lot curbs to allow water to flow more easily into the garden.
  • The City of Wilmington donated crew labor, materials, and equipment (the outlet structure and associated pipe was donated by the City, and there was work in the Department of Transportation's right-of-way that needed to be done to connect the outlet structure to the stormwater system).
  • At the workday, 20 volunteers worked for 8 hours! Led by crew leaders, they planted all native plants (most of the volunteers planting were UNCW students), installed swales to slow down, direct and absorb the water, and applied mulch. Grant monies paid for plants and for the students' travel. The installation got some great tv coverage, too.

The garden was completed in early May 2014 and "went to work" quickly! Sean was on-site during rainstorms and a hurricane, and saw that the garden sponged-up 2-3 inch storms. To help educate visitors, signage will be installed. Also, a public ribbon cutting ceremony will happen in September.

There is a phase 2 project planned: do other areas closer to the cinema building to control flow coming into the garden. Dr. Shew wants to do analysis of the volume of sediment coming off the parking lot. Also EVS students could be involved in measuring the garden’s effectiveness. The UNCW Club is part of new-student orientation, introducing the students to OFG issues on campus. In addition, the Club partners with the University’s Landscape Services on educating students about existing bio-retention ponds. They table on campus to reach the 11,000 student body. The Cape Fear Chapter talks about OFG during their movie showings on the deck in the middle of  the OFG area.

The garden serves as both an educational and functional centerpiece for the Heal Our Waterways Program, the outreach and project management component of the Bradley and Hewletts Creeks Watershed Restoration Plan. As Erin says, the community can see the garden as just a larger example of what they can do at home, work and at public sites. Part of Erin’s job is doing site evaluations for private property such as homes and businesses: she brings along pictures of the garden as a model. Local landscape professionals will learn from it, too. The garden will be featured on the Wilmington low-impact design tour. NCSU's Engineering Summer Camp stopped by on a tour.

The Chancellor is so happy with the garden that he has asked Sean to speak about the project at a September 19th conference by the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities. Meanwhile, Erin, Jon and Dr. Hunt were selected to present on it at the International Low-Impact Development Conference in Houston, TX in January 2015.

Read more about the project in UNCW Magazine and North Carolina Coastal Federation’s website.

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