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Ukiah Unified School District’s Rain Gardens Protect Creeks and Engage Students

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. “These are our new rain gardens and bioretention basins,” says UUSD Director of Maintenance, Operations, and Transportation Gabriel Sherman. “We’ve installed them to prevent pollution from entering Orrs Creek and to engage the students in our efforts to improve the environment. 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), 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 enabled the school to install a 5,000-gallon rainwater collection system to provide water during the summer to their livestock and aquaponics program. Ukiah Unified School District’s Superintendent Deb Kubin notes that “DROPS is a triple win for us, providing ecological benefits, student engagement, and campus beautification.”

What are Rain Gardens and Bioretention Basins?

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 to absorb and filter the stormwater.”

Students and Teachers Take the Lead

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.  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, into rivers, lakes, and oceans. 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,” she says. “The DROPS program gave them the opportunity first hand to learn 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,” says Edelman. “We have the pleasure of knowing that we are providing a cleaner environment into the future.”

Click here to learn more.

Click here to learn about simple rain garden installation at home.

Click here to read a Ukiah Daily Journal article about the DROPS Project at UHS.