Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Land and Water Conservation: Value in the Unseen

Since 1999, I have been blessed to conduct research in land stewardship on the campus of Cedarville University with numerous biology and environmental science students. Beginning in 2006, we cooperated with staff of our Administration and of the Grounds Department in an effort to develop the functionality and aesthetic appeal of what we call “Cedar Creek and Wetland.”

By way of background, much of the precipitation that descends on our campus buildings, parking lots, and lawns becomes runoff water that flows in the storm drainage system to Cedar Lake and its outlet, Cedar Creek. Although we need buildings, roads, and parking lots, no one wishes to see the Earth paved in concrete or asphalt. Yet, our supply of fresh usable water can only be maintained if precipitation water is allowed to soak into the soil to recharge ground water. For this entry and percolation to happen we must exercise good stewardship of the soil and the plants we grow or allow to grow in that soil. Let’s consider the importance of biotic communities with saturated and sometimes submerged soil along streams and rivers. These communities are known as wetlands and they promote water retention and purification.

The quantity and quality of water leaving our campus on its way to the Gulf of Mexico via Cedar Creek, to Massies Creek, the Little Miami River, the Ohio River, and the Mississippi River depends on the little noticed and unseen work of soil microbes and plant roots that reside in the wetlands along small “headwater” tributaries like Cedar Creek and Massies Creek. It is here that water can percolate slowly and be cleansed of toxic pesticides, heavy metals, and dissolved fertilizer being carried in the water from lawns, fields, and industrial discharges. Given their role in storm water retention and water purification, wetland communities that flank streams, rivers, and lakes, function like kidneys. Hence, the water quality and biological health of large rivers are dependent upon the little noticed or unseen activity of headwater streams and wetlands far upstream. But, if these “headwater wetland kidneys” are to do their work, we must maintain them as healthy biotic communities with good plant and animal biodiversity which in turn creates a good soil environment.

Our research effort on campus is being conducted in conjunction with the construction of a new Health Science Building (HSB). Thanks to the Cedarville University Administration and the Grounds Department, we were able to participate in the discussion and planning of the landscaping and drainage necessary for the HSB. Students and I wrote the following mission statement to convey to the architects and university personnel our rationale and purpose:

The Cedar Creek and Wetland Project aims to apply ecological and biblical stewardship principles to manage runoff water on the Cedarville University campus, particularly adjacent to the Stevens Student Center (SSC) and the Health Science Building (HSB). This aim will be accomplished through construction of a "basin wetland" surrounded by an upward-sloping landscape to be populated with suitably adapted plant and animal species. In so doing, we aim to enhance stream water quality, plant and animal biodiversity, and aesthetic beauty while involving students in meaningful research experiences and conveying to the university community and visitors our intent to provide a landscape that models Cedarville University's commitment to the biblical mandate to exercise stewardship and care of creation.

The result of our discussions of building landscaping and drainage was the development of what we call a “basin wetland.” The basin collects storm water from roofs, sidewalks, and parking lots, and retains some of it to protect the stream during storms. Then, the water drains within hours from the basin, leaving an ongoing wetland area with slightly submerged or saturated soil. The sloping sides of the basin have soils that are more well drained and will support upland plant species. We are currently sowing and transplanting wetland-adapted plants into the basin and native prairie species in the surrounding upland areas.

As we introduced native plant seed and transplanted seedlings grown during the winter in our Plant Growth Lab, we also observed the preparation of the Health Science Building foundation and erection of its structural steel. Working to establish wetland and prairie communities in the shadow of this magnificent building reminded us of the similarities between construction of a building and ‘construction’ of a riparian wetland. For both projects, it is the little noticed or unseen activities that determine the outcome.

First, both a building and a wetland require the proper soil or earthen foundation. The foundation is not designed for visitors to admire, but without it, a building will be unstable. Likewise, a wetland community depends upon plants deeply rooted in good, “hydric” soils where the unseen benefits of a wetland can occur.

Second, both a building and a wetland community require regulation of the water table, or location of water-saturated soil relative to the surface. Without proper drainage to deepen the water table, no foundation can support a massive structure built upon it; and, without provision for water retention and limited drainage, a wetland will not be able to retain a high water table necessary to support hydrophytic (“water loving”) plants and associated soil microbes.

Third, building construction and wetland community construction both require patience over a lengthy period. Complex blueprints are developed to assure that each steel joint, bolt, conduit, and wire are properly installed and in the proper order. Wetland community construction involves a similar complexity in which adapted plant species must be selected and introduced based on the genetic blueprint of each species. The genetic code contained within each seed somehow guides the development of root, stem, and leaf of unusual plants such as Bullrushes and Sedges that can live in flooded or submerged wetland soil; others such as Switchgrass and Compass Plant are adapted to well drained, upland soils. Just as the functionality of a building depends on the proper development of systems that are hidden behind the drywall, so wetland and prairie plant species devote much time and energy to develop extensive root systems which are unseen beneath the soil.

Finally, the successful planning and construction of a building on a university campus that aspires to equip students through an education marked by excellence and grounded in biblical truth should go beyond simply providing for a firm foundation and proper assembly of necessary building systems. Building construction should also apply biblical principles that teach the importance of allowing the landscape, water, and creatures to flourish in association with the humans who use the building. We believe it is fitting that a “Health Science Building” designed to improve human health through the ministry of many well trained graduates should reside in a landscape that also enhances human health in a wider context through increased environmental quality and aesthetic beauty.

Today, both the building and the wetland community are “under construction.” It is our hope that the maturation of each will converge to contribute a sense of wholeness or “shalom” among humans and creatures evident to all who visit the Cedarville University campus. A “health science” for humans depends on stewardship of all creation so that all creatures can flourish as God intends.

What can you do? First, why not pray for construction workers’ safety as they work on the Health Science Building; and, pray that the seeds we have sown and plants transplanted will take root and prosper; and, that God may be honored by the results of both projects.

Second, if you are a “land steward”, you may wish to know how you can manage your soil and water to enhance the qualities described above. Farmers generally have access to soil conservation agents and programs through government agencies accessible online. However, if you are an urban resident, you may wish to explore “rain gardens.” See the Rain Garden Network as one of several websites with helpful information on how you can retain and conserve water, improve its quality, and enjoy gardening with attractive plantings :

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