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Rain garden to be installed in May Hall courtyard this spring

April 9, 2009

Prior to graduation in May, a rain garden will be installed on the UW-River Falls campus.

The garden will be erected on the northeast side courtyard of May Hall. The desired date for the garden to be installed is sometime prior to graduation. However, with the frost still needing to be thawed, it is more realistic that it will happen after graduation.

A rain garden is a planted depression in the ground. It is designed in a way that allows rainwater runoff the chance to be absorbed from urban area fixtures like roofs, driveways and walkways.

Rain gardens reduce rainwater runoff by allowing storm water to soak into the ground. This reduces erosion, water pollution, flooding and diminished groundwater because the runoff, filled with fertilizers and other pollutants, is not flowing into storm drains and surface waters.

According to the Wisconsin DNR, a properly installed rain garden can reduce runoff by 25 percent.

By controlling the excess runoff water on campus, a group of five UWRF students hopes to prevent the sidewalks near May Hall from flooding as well as preventing so much runoff from flowing into the Kinnickinic River from campus.

Mike Tansey, Amber Hahn, Ashley Grundtner, Nicole Flipp and Erin Nyhus are the five students involved with the project. These five students come from horticulture, biotechnology and environmental science majors.

In addition to the water being soaked into the ground, Nyhus said the garden’s plants themselves are helpful.

“The plants will absorb some contaminants while the ground acts as a natural filter to purify the water before it reaches groundwater aquifers. The plant material that will be used is adapted to periods of saturation, but they can also tolerate drought conditions, so there should be very little maintenance on the garden,” Nyhus said. “The garden will match the green approach UWRF is tackling. It’s going to help keep trash out of the Kinni.”

It was the UWRF grounds crew that brought the original idea of the rain garden to the attention of Terry Ferriss. Ferriss is the chair of the plant science department, and she helped the students conduct a preliminary assessment of the area outside May Hall.

“The grounds crew noticed that there is an excess of water collecting between May and Prucha Halls after the snow melts or when there are large rain storms,” Nyhus said. 

After hearing from the grounds crew, Ferriss talked to her classes about halfway through fall semester. She asked if anyone would be interested in coming up with something to control the flooding.

“We started taking our first measurements around Thanksgiving,” Tansey said. “The whole process of designing has been done in this semester. We [the designers] meet about once a week.”

In addition to designing, the committee will also be in charge of purchasing plant material that is appropriate for the rain garden, and will ideally be able to help the grounds crew plant the garden when everything is ready.

“We’re looking for plants to give the garden a more native, nature feel. We want it to the match the other gardens around campus. Like, the ones in front of KFA and the Ag Sci building,” Grundtner said.

So far, the crew has about 24 different species of plants in mind for the rain garden, which range from roses to thyme. The plants must be strategically picked for color; they need to have an allure to them in the summer and the winter.

“Each person brought in about 10 ideas of what species they thought of,” Tansey said. “We pooled all the plants together and narrowed them down.”

In addition to color, other qualities of these plants need to be taken into account. There will be the possibility of people driving around the garden with events like freshmen move-in and snow removal. The crew has taken the measurement of about one tire-width into account when planning the garden.

“Also, specific plants need to be planted in certain spots to keep students from walking through the garden,” Hahn said. “We’ve dropped the garden six inches down, but that won’t stop everyone from walking through. That’s why we’re thinking about roses as the border.”

The committee has not begun purchasing any plants, but Ferriss said that day is coming fast.

“We need to calculate how many plants we’re looking for,” Ferriss said. “We know the types, but we’ve got to get thinking about how many we’re going to need.”