By Katie Gilman, Phase II Fellow
One would think having grown up less than a mile from the Rappahannock River in the Northern Neck Penninsula of Virginia, I would automatically possess a deep appreciation and concern for water quality. Not until I spent time in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia, where several watersheds to the Chesapeake Bay begin, did it finally click to me how important it is to responsibly manage waterways to ensure healthy ecosystems. The repercussions of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries include job loss, poor health, dirty water, not to mention environmental degradation. There are 50 major rivers and streams that pour into the bay, roughly a 64,000 square mile watershed covered with forest, farms, wildlife habitat, cities and suburbs. Watersheds start as far north as New York and run though six states and the District of Columbia before entering the bay and finally the Atlantic Ocean (cbf.org).
As stated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, there are 5 main sources of nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay: agricultural runoff (41%), air pollution (25%), wastewater treatment and factories (16%), urban and suburban stormwater runoff (15%) and septic (3%). Stormwater runoff is the only major category of nitrogen pollution that is still growing.
The AMI Urban Farm and the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind (VSDB), were fortunate enough to obtain a Chesapeake Bay Trust K-12 Environmental Education Mini-Grant in 2015. Lewis Creek runs along the eastern boarder of the AMI Urban Farm, later emptying into the Middle River then the North River, Shenandoah River, Potomac River, and finally the Chesapeake Bay. There is no question that if Lewis Creek did contain pollutants, they would end up in the bay. The goal of this grant was for VSDB students to plan and implement a 300-foot riparian buffer containing native plants along a drainage ditch running adjacent to the current AMI Urban Farm. Riparian forest buffers, when the buffer becomes mature, are capable of filtering ground and surface water, stabilizing stream banks, providing shade, and supporting a variety of habitats. Forested buffers can retain and absorb up to 89 percent of the nitrogen in ground and surface water. The roots of buffers are extremely beneficial to vegetation by keeping stream banks in place; creating breaches in soil to allow rainwater to penetrate and recharge underground water reservoirs (gettingmoreontheground.com). The hope is that the buffer will filter our pollutants carried by storm water run-off from the upper VSDB campus before they reach Lewis Creek, as well as supply the inputs to the creek that support a healthy aquatic ecosystem.
In 2015, VSDB middle school students undertook this project. They observed the current water run-off situation, identified problems, spoke with a water conservation expert from Friends of the Middle River, researched native trees and shrubs that would be ideal for the buffer, and then designed an intervention.
Once a plan of action was solidified students and farm volunteers began work on the north and south slopes of this drainage area. A 300-foot area was sheet mulched with cardboard and wood chips to suppress grass and weeds, facilitating easier planting and to encourage healthy plant establishment of the native buffer species. In January 2016, an adjoining 1 acre area next to the current AMI Farm, containing the drainage ditch, was fenced in as a means to keep deer out.
Once this area was adequately protected, 150 bare-root trees and shrubs were added. Middle schoolers frequently took trips down to the new buffer area to help plant these species they had carefully picked out for their preference of a wet environment. A few species planted were paw paw, hazelnut, elderberry, buttonbush, and silky dogwood.
On Friday, May 27th a celebratory, school-wide planting of 800 potted native herbaceous plants was orchestrated. The middle schoolers taught all other grades how to plant into the buffer area. The school was first given a brief synopsis of the project by 2 middle schoolers. Afterwards,1-2 students from assorted grades were guided through the entire planting procedure by a middle school “crew leader”. A few species planted were milkweed, blue vervain, switchgrass, and fox sedge.
As another unique teaching opportunity, the middle schoolers hosted a video-conference in this past April with students from the Mississippi School for the Deaf. They conveyed what they had learned during this project as well as conducted an experiment demonstrating the importance of living roots on erosion.
The riparian buffer project has and will serve as an educational opportunity for VSDB students, serving as an outdoor classroom, as well as an environmental restoration success. The AMI Urban Farm would like to thank all those who contributed to this project- the Chesapeake Bay Trust, VSDB Foundation, VSDB staff and CROPS program leaders, Friends of the Middle River, Natural Gardens of Harrisonburg, and Conservation Servicess, Inc.