Partners in Education and Conservation: Stormwater Management in the Cedar Valley

Water Quality Initiative Urban Success Story – Partners in Education and Conservation: Stormwater Management in the Cedar Valley

Contributed by Joshua Balk - Dry Run Creek Watershed Coordinator in Black Hawk County

There are many educational opportunities in our world, especially in the realm of conservation. Some are best learned in classrooms whereas others take place out in the field. It is indeed a special project that merges both of these settings. The Black Hawk Soil and Water Conservation District was able to accomplish this with assistance of several partners within the Cedar Valley including the University of Northern Iowa, Hawkeye Community College, and the Cedar Falls Community School District through the Water Quality Initiative Urban Conservation Program.

All three educational institutions were looking at ways to more effectively manage stormwater runoff that was impacting their land. UNI was in the process of a major renovation to their Schindler Education Center, which included an adjacent plaza largely comprised of concrete with minimal green space. Hawkeye had noticed erosion taking several places of the main campus courtyard as well as around a couple small ponds. The Cedar Falls School District was eagerly looking forward to the construction of a new school, Aldrich Elementary. All three of these institutions were interested in ways to be more sustainable and conservation minded. In the end all three were successful thanks to funding through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Water Quality Initiative.

UNI was able to demolish a concrete plaza, removing 13,000 square feet of impervious surface, and incorporated 3,945 square feet of permeable pavers in to the new design, as well as several areas of landscaped greenspace. Hawkeye installed two bioretention cells totaling 450 square feet to treat runoff from adjacent buildings and walkways and is currently in the process of installing almost three acres of native prairie to protect the banks and improve water quality in their two ponds. Three bioretention cells totaling almost 5,500 square feet were implemented in to Aldrich Elementary School to manage almost two acres that comprised the schools parking lots.

The goal for these practices was to get stormwater runoff to infiltrate in the ground much like it would on a native, pre-settled landscape. Through this process nutrients, sediment, bacteria, heavy metals, and many other pollutants are also prevented from negatively impacting our local water bodies. Together these practices are managing over 13 acres of land, infiltrating 1.7 million gallons of stormwater, reducing 2.3 tons of sediment, 17 pounds of nitrogen, and 4 pounds of phosphorus each year.

These are impressive numbers and will be working to improve water quality here in the Cedar Valley for years to come. The real benefit here however is not just the water quality but the educational component that these projects will have. UNI hosts around 12,000 students each year, Hawkeye enrolls around 5,000; there are 5,500 students in the Cedar Falls School District with 370 attending Aldrich Elementary. Over the years, these numbers add up quickly. Each one of these sites provide an opportunity for educators to take their students out to view stormwater management in action, for students to see pollinators benefiting from native prairie plants, or how green infrastructure can be incorporated in to our everyday areas and be both aesthetically pleasing while also positively impacting conservation.

This conservation education is not only being implemented with passive learning, there were also many students that were directly involved with these projects. At Hawkeye Community College, students in the Natural Resources program volunteered their time and energy in to the construction of the bioretention cells and native prairie installation. This hands-on activity provided students with some understanding of how these projects function, a deeper appreciation for the work involved with these construction project, as well as having a lasting impact in their college’s sustainable future.

With a project this large in scope incorporating several separate establishments, all with individual organizational structures comprising many boards each representing different cohorts of students, parents, faculty and staff, this demanded support from many levels. For this project to be successful, it took the commitment, cooperation and support of many individuals representing these institutions. When leaders make sustainability a priority, that attitude can inspire others and lead to additional adoption of conservation practices, both on and off campus. Further, when students, regardless of age, witness the benefits of these practices, the conservation seed gets planted within their brains.

This project marked the first time that Hawkeye Community College and the Cedar Falls Community School District teamed up with the Black Hawk SWCD to implement conservation practices on both of their campuses. The University of Northern Iowa has been installing stormwater management practices in partnership with the Dry Run Creek Watershed Improvement Project since the project began in 2005. UNI is now recognized as a leader in the Cedar Valley for their innovative practice adoption. Black Hawk SWCD is very proud of these project accomplishments and the new relationships that have been formed through this partnership. We look forward to working closely together to continue implementing and educating conservation here in Black Hawk County.

Additional funding to construct the UNI SEC permeable paver plaza was provided by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources through the Environmental Protection Agency Section 319 program.

Will Myers