Being the Change

Flowing by design

by Jan Gillis ('07)

ISAT majors Nicolas Jaramillo ('09) and Bonnie Tang ('09) check a tree sapling.

JMU-RMH Collaborative creates wetlands at new hospital
By Chris Bolgiano

"We've never actually seen it wet," says Nicolas Jaramillo ('09), standing in the wetland he helped create on the construction site of the new Rockingham Memorial Hospital. "But this is the lowest place on the property," explains project partner Bonnie Tang ('09), "so this is where the water wants to flow." The intensely green grass along this low swath of land between rolling brown hills testifies to the subsurface seepage of moisture in an unusually dry year. This flow is the headwaters of the stream known as Pleasant Run.

Guided by Wayne Teel, integrated science and technology professor, and supported by the JMU-RMH Collaborative, Jaramillo and Tang designed a five-acre wooded wetland to filter water flowing from the new hospital grounds into Pleasant Run (and ultimately into the Chesapeake Bay). The integrated science and technology students' project will be a special area of natural beauty at Virginia's first hospital certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building rating system.

Projects with mutual benefit

Established in early 2007, the JMU-RMH Collaborative aims to expand the century-long relationship between the two institutions by building networks for communication and development of shared initiatives. As the collaborative celebrated its second birthday in April, Dean of the College of Integrated Science and Technology (and collaborative leader) Sharon Lovell counted some 20 new projects to be discussed.

"And those are just the ones we know about," she says. "We have no formal submission procedures or any oversight; we're strictly a facilitative body. We try to pave the way for people to move forward with joint projects that benefit students, faculty members, the hospital and the community."

Paving is an apt metaphor for Lovell but it's the source of a problem at the new RMH site. The original 254-acre farm is being transformed into an intensively human-dominated landscape. Rain running off roofs, parking lots and other impermeable surfaces will carry a wide variety of pollutants and sediments into Pleasant Run. A downstream segment of Pleasant Run is already on the state's list of "impaired" streams, due mainly to bacteria from livestock manure, so water quality is a crucial issue.

Planning for water flow

Two existing farm ponds and two new ponds that were built to contain runoff from soil exposed by construction had to be woven into the plan for water flow through the wetland. Sewer, water and gas lines running beneath the low area, plus sewer system manhole covers at surface level, further complicated the challenge of directing water flow. Jaramillo and Tang designed two long humps of earth, called berms, at right angles to the water flow to mimic a natural stream meander and to slow the velocity of the water.

"The most important thing," Teel says, "is slowing the water to reduce flooding impact and prevent erosion." At about 15 inches high, the berms were kept low enough to allow exceptionally heavy rains—during hurricanes, for example—to simply flow over them rather than rush around the berm ends, digging gullies in the process.

"It took many months of surveying, mapping, planning and communicating with everyone," Tang explains, "and then the berms were built in a week. It was very gratifying to see a physical result."

Jaramillo and Tang also contracted with a local company to plant more than 400 trees and shrubs. Because of low rainfall and soil type, they selected native species that can handle dry as well as wet conditions rather than wetland plants only. "RMH funded the work, and we minimized the cost of everything so we could maximize the number of plants we could get," says Tang. Plant roots hold soil against the erosive force of water, giving the soil time to absorb and break down pollutants.

"What we didn't expect," says Jaramillo, "was how heavily the deer would browse the plants. Replanting might be necessary, and we're investigating a solar powered electric deer fence. Once the plants are established, though, little to no wetland maintenance will be necessary."

A unique wellness opportunity

Debra Thompson, RMH associate director for communication, says, "We're committed to monitoring the wetland and doing what's needed to ensure that it thrives. Our long-term vision is to create a beautiful park-like setting with trails that offer a unique wellness opportunity for patients, visitors and the entire community."

To complement the planned trails, Jaramillo and Tang considered aesthetics in choosing plants. Redbud trees and several varieties of dogwoods will enhance springtime; iris, marsh marigold, cardinal flower, great blue lobelia and other wildflowers will bloom throughout summer. Witch hazel bushes will add yellow blooms to fall foliage, and holly trees will enliven winter with red berries. Most of the plants selected will attract insects and birds to their flowers or fruits. "One of our goals was to attract native wildlife, especially birds," Tang says. Canada geese and mallards preening on one of the ponds seemed happy to oblige.

Published: Friday, June 1, 2012

Last Updated: Tuesday, February 27, 2018

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