Landscaping planned to keep stormwater pollution out of St. Marys River

BY TAYLOR HAELTERMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Students, community groups, and Lake Superior State University will be taking advantage of landscaping this summer to help reduce rainwater pollution in the St. Marys River.

The project received $ 250,000 from the US Forest Service as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program to protect the drinking water and habitat of the Great Lakes.

Rainwater carries things like trash and bacteria out of the city, through the drainage systems, and into the river, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Landscaping, also referred to in this context as green infrastructure, reduces or treats rainwater runoff on the way to a river or lake.

The university’s project will use soil and native plants to collect and filter out pollutants before the runoff reaches the river, said Ashley Moerke, director of the university’s Center for Freshwater Resources and Education at Sault Ste. Marie.

“Part of us as an old city with much earlier industrial development is that we no longer have these natural features,” she said. “It’s a really simple mechanism. It creates areas of depression and plants (them) with native plants that absorb (rainwater). It’s not that complicated idea, but it’s something we’ve really moved away from. “

The landscaping will surround the proposed Richard and Theresa Barch Center for Freshwater Research and Education building. Once built, the center will house research laboratories, teaching laboratories and a Great Lakes visitor center.

The university is building the center on a former industrial site that is contaminated with pollutants. The country previously had a chemical plant.

The plan always included green infrastructure, but cleaning the site was more expensive than the university had planned. That prevented Lake Superior State from incorporating the landscaping it wanted, Moerke said.

“When part of the (factory) was removed, much of the material was buried.” Said Moerke. “When we started laying the foundations of our building, we found entire railroad tracks, these huge cement pillars, and an enormous amount of rubble. This added another million and a half to the cost of our project. “

A priority for the forest service was “promoting green infrastructure to reduce pollutant runoff from degraded sites,” said Sheela Johnson, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative program manager for the forest service.

The agency was looking for a project that would turn adhesion on poor quality soils into a natural landscape where vegetation can catch water and the soil allows for more natural flow, like that in a forest, Johnson said.

The St. Marys River project met many of the forest service’s needs, including engaging students and community members, educating the public, reducing pollutant runoff, and building on a former fallow land, Johnson said.

The green landscaping prevents the Richard and Theresa Barch Center for Freshwater Research and Education at Lake Superior State University from being polluted anytime soon along the St. Marys River.

Moerke hopes the Sault Ste. Marie residents are expanding green infrastructure along the river.

“This will be the first project in our region to use this approach,” she said. “So we hope this gives the community opportunities to be greener in our development.”

High school and college students, youth groups, and the Chippewa Luce Mackinac Conservation District will help the university start planting in late August and continue into September, Moerke said.

The Forest Service will begin accepting grant applications for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative again this spring.

Taylor Haelterman writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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