If you drive to Ukiah High this spring for a sporting or a musical event, you will notice some unusual landscaping in the parking lot and on campus: new rain gardens and bioretention basins.
"We've installed them to prevent pollution from entering Orr Creek and to engage the students in our efforts to improve the environment," says Ukiah Unified School District (UUSD) Director of Maintenance, Operations, and Transportation Gabriel Sherman. "Once the plants have matured, they will also provide a habitat for butterflies and other beneficial insects, and it doesn't hurt that they will look great, too!"
The gardens and basins are part of a grant program from the California State Water Resource Control Board called the Drought Response Outreach Program for Schools (DROPS), which is meant to assist schools with water pollution prevention. The DROPS project at Ukiah High packs a wallop: Every year, the gardens and basins will filter and clean 4.5 million gallons of stormwater. The DROPS grant also has enabled the school to install a 5,000-gallon rainwater collection system to provide water during the summer to its livestock and aquaponics program.
"DROPS is a triple win for us, providing ecological benefits, student engagement, and campus beautification," says UUSD's Communications Officer Doug Shald.
The ABCs of Bioretention Basins and Rain Gardens
Rain gardens and bioretention basins are vegetated areas specially designed to intercept flowing stormwater and clean it of pollutants. Hard surfaces, such as cement and asphalt, shed rain quickly, letting it gain velocity and pick up materials such as gas, oil, cigarette butts, and plastic wrappers. The fast-moving water enters streams and rivers via the storm drain system, eroding stream banks, contaminating drinking water, and poisoning wildlife. "On the surface, the gardens and basins just look like ordinary plants and wood chips, but the work happens underground," says co-project manager Deborah Edelman of the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District. "The structures are composed of 4-6 feet of engineered layers of rocks and soils [that] absorb and filter the stormwater."
Students Lead the Way
Ukiah High students have been central to the project, taking leadership roles and conducting water-quality monitoring, campus litter clean-ups, and peer-to-peer presentations about stormwater and watershed health. Ukiah High School science teacher Brenna Raugewitz was instrumental in integrating the DROPS project into the curriculum.
"Water is one of the most important aspects of life, and people take it for granted," she says. "Most do not stop to think about the amount of drinking water that is wasted to flush toilets, do dishes, or shower. There is a limited supply of water, much of which is polluted by one way or another. Besides wasting water, the human-generated litter, agricultural runoff, animal wastes, air pollution particulates, car emissions, and chemical wastes are entering our watersheds unfiltered as rains carry these pollutants into the drainage systems, rivers, lakes, and oceans," she continues. "We spend a lot of time in AP Environmental Science talking about water quality and water pollution on both a local and a global scale. Students have learned the importance of clean water as a life-sustaining entity and are eager to help educate people and protect our precious supply of water. The DROPS program gave them the opportunity to learn first-hand about remediation efforts and preventative measures to protect our water supply for our generation and the future."
Best of all, the water-quality benefits will continue for years to come. "The rain gardens and bioretention basins require very little upkeep," Edelman says. "We have the pleasure of knowing that we are providing a cleaner environment into the future."
Want to learn more? Visit the Ukiah High DROPS website at ukiahhigh.uusd.net. Want to install a simple rain garden at home? Find out how at sonomamg.ucanr.edu/files/122826.pdf.