November 27, 2020

A new rain garden may be planted on campus

The Webster University Sustainability Coalition will determine on Monday, Dec. 5, the outcome of plans to plant a natural rain garden around the retention basin behind Garden Park Plaza. Webster adjunct professor Jeff DePew has been working with students for the past six years to make the campus wetlands a more student-friendly area.
When DePew first got involved with the wetlands, he said he and students were working to turn the “menacing-looking drain” into the scenic pond it is today. The drainage area was created with the construction of the parking garage in 2003. It was turned into a pond retention basin last summer. DePew is now working to transform the area again to add a rain garden.
“A true rain garden operates to hold water back onto the land and not allow it to go straight to the sewers,” DePew said. “How that happens is either by structuring the land itself and/or adding a significant number of native plants to hold that water back. In essence, it’s sort of creating an artificial mini-wetland.”
Areas like Webster’s campus, with lots of non-permeable surfaces, often experience flooding from water runoff during storms. This water goes to the sewer system, where the water must be cleaned as part of the Clean Water Act. The wetland behind the parking garage was created to redirect water runoff away from the sewers. It also acts to trap pollutants in the water, allowing them to be biodigested.
“It serves a really important function to our community’s ecosystem,” Sustainability Coordinator Brad Wolaver said. “By helping redirect some of that flow off of the streets, it should reduce a lot of erosion and flooding around this area.”
If approved, DePew and students will begin planting native plant species around the water retention basin to create the rain garden in the spring. These plants must be tolerant to large amounts of water, but also drought. DePew has been working closely with the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Shaw Nature Reserve and several local nurseries to get donated plants for the rain garden.
DePew also plans to install several houses for purple martin—a bird species that clears out area insects — as well as bat houses. With these animals present, insect populations should be kept down. DePew plans to plant a variety of plants and flowers in the area, with bee boxes to promote pollination.
“If we plan it correctly, there should be something blooming virtually always,” DePew said.
The addition of a rain garden would ideally attract wildlife such as water fowl and muskrats, creating a natural observation area on campus.
“We would generate a living laboratory for students to learn about these types of principles and practices that are important to the environmental management of our community,” Wolaver said.
Wolaver said although nobody else in the St. Louis area is installing rain gardens on this scale, the gardens are important to have on campus to balance environmental engineering demands from storm runoff and the natural qualities the university wants to promote. Facilities’ grounds manager Bruce Francis agreed rain gardens are important to have on campus for sustainability purposes.
“If we can’t make our environment more sustainable, we’re not going to be able to sustain ourselves,” Francis said.
Along with the development behind Garden Park Plaza, the New Academic Building is also incorporating rain gardens. A rain garden is being built alongside the building facing Garden Avenue, with another on the opposite side of the building.
“The intent is not to retain water, but to slow water drainage and to clean as it drains,” Gavin Ackermann, project engineer for Paric Corporation—the company constructing the new building—said.
After six years of trying to get approval for the addition of rain gardens on campus, DePew is finally beginning to gain leeway under Stroble’s administration, which seems to be more open to sustainability topics.
In addition to the area behind the parking garage, DePew has been able to create a small rain garden near the Pearson House to mitigate floods on the sidewalk, with more being developed.
“We’re just creating a more natural campus, a more sustainable campus,” DePew said. “I think that the students will love that.”

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