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Preserving Wetlands on the New RMH Health Campus

New RMH Health Campus Nestled into the vast 254-acre RMH health campus is a tiny, 5-7 acre "fertile crescent" of land known as the wetlands. This grassy, marshy section of land sits at the headwaters of Pleasant Run, a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay.

In 2009, as a collaborative endeavor between JMU and RMH, James Madison University professor Wayne Teel, PhD, and students in his "Sustainability, An Ecological Perspective" class began to look at how to manage this land on the new RMH property.

Historically, wetlands have been regarded as wastelands and suffered from large-scale efforts to drain them, says Teel. However, scientists have realized that these marshlands serve a valuable role in flood control, water filtration and providing habitats for certain plant and wildlife species. As RMH sought to use environmentally safe, sustainable practices during the construction of its new hospital, preserving and enhancing this piece of land was particularly important.

"We wanted to ensure that RMH construction did not disturb the natural habitat of the wetlands," says Dennis Coffman, director, RMH Facilities Planning and Development. "We also desired to protect and preserve the wetlands for the future."

Pleasant Run is considered navigable water, and so is classified as a federal stream. Pleasant Run was already recognized and listed as an "impaired" stream. Therefore, RMH paid particular attention to the quality of water being released into the wetland on its property, because it would eventually trickle downstream into Pleasant Run.

A small stream runs through the wetlands, situated behind the new hospital building. The construction of parking lots on the site dramatically increased the amount of storm water runoff making its way into this stream. Rather than have a torrent of water cutting through the land, eroding it and releasing pollutants into the watershed, the college students devised a plan to create a slowly meandering stream. This helps prevent polluted water from being released into Pleasant Run.

A wetland's built-in filtration system cleans the earth's water before it reaches fish and other organisms, says Teel, JMU professor of integrated science and technology. "Water that comes off impervious surfaces, like parking lots, picks up particles that aren't healthy for downstream life," he explains. "We tried to manipulate the water so it flowed correctly offsite. The most important thing was managing the pulse of water to reduce flooding impact and prevent erosion. We wanted to slow it down so the water was released in the stream as if there were no impervious surfaces nearby. We also wanted to beautify the area."

JMU also established a monitoring station near Port Republic Road and watched the effect the RMH construction project had on the stream. With one detention pond already in place on site to help filter runoff from the construction site, RMH was releasing cleaner water into the stream than before construction began, when the land was under farm use, Coffman says. This monitoring station is an ongoing part of the JMU-RMH collaboration effort.

JMU students also worked with RMH to enhance the wetlands to provide an area replete with native plant species and bird life. To further enhance the wetlands habitat for birds, in the summer of 2011, 16-year-old Andrew Krauss of Harrisonburg built and placed nesting houses on the site as his Eagle Scout project. The area may someday have walkways where people may observe nature in the wetlands.