Revitalizing Albion’s water systems

Dr. Lincoln (far left) and Dr. White (right) investigate the disorganized water system.

The Kalamazoo River glides smoothly over obstinate rocks, slips under bridges and meanders pleasantly through Albion’s heart. At first glance, the water’s gleaming surface seems almost untouched. Its waves ripple gently and transparently. However, an unseen danger lurks beneath the presumably clean waves. A sign beside the river warns against drinking its water. This apparent contamination hints at a tragically flawed water system. A committee formed by the college’s Center for Sustainability and the Environment (CSE) on Tuesday, Sept. 10 aimed to change that through the creation of bioswales.

A bioswale is an element of landscape design intended to replace the typical drainage system in which gutters channel rainwater from rooftops into downspout pipes. In this usual system, the water is funneled into one or two storm drains, collecting abundant dirt and debris along the way. In the city of Albion, this water eventually empties into the Kalamazoo River, introducing the build-up of harmful sediment.

Fortunately, bioswales offer an ecologically-minded alternative. They are open ditches with sloped sides which direct storm water from its source (runoff from the tops of buildings) to its release point (the Kalamazoo). In this way, they share the current drainage system’s purpose. However, bioswales are designed to promote water slowing and filtration through natural means. Suitable vegetation is planted in and around the ditch, and these plants very slightly obstruct and decelerate water flow. Through this slower process, pollutant particles are forced to settle into the soil, at which point they decompose. Owing to their trench-like nature, bioswales also reduce water overflow into roads.

The basic structure of a typical bioswale.
The basic structure of a typical bioswale.

The CSE consulted environmental artist Betsy Damon and several science professors in their project planning. Damon, a founding member of the non-profit organization Keepers of the Waters, created the popular public park Living Water Garden in Chengdu, China. She feels Albion’s current landscape is “too antiseptic” and calls for the foundation of water gardens, wherein an eclectic bunch of plants would border bioswales. Co-chair and Geochemistry Professor Dr. Tim Lincoln heartily agrees with her proposition.

“I’m not a big fan of a rock-filled landscape,” Lincoln said. Instead, he recommends planting native flowering perennials in and alongside the proposed channels. Lincoln admits that to accept the notion of bioswales, “you must change your aesthetic just a little.” The collection of plants the ditches usually feature are not conventionally beautiful, but “they’re attractive in their own way.”

Albion’s landscape is especially well-suited for bioswale development due to the enormous excess of water running off of and away from buildings, which Damon compared to mountains. While this is unarguably special, she notes that “every place qualifies” for bioswale development.

With Damon’s assistance, the CSE devised a two-part plan aimed at bioswale creation and general environmental improvement on campus. At a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 24, Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Douglas White unrolled a map used to determine where the need for bioswales is greatest and their formation most plausible. The team stressed the importance of putting the school’s large parking lots to valuable use.

First, White presented “a shovel-ready idea” – the development of a bioswale in the parking lot between the science complex and Health Services building. The science center’s drainage system inadvertently robs the adjacent structure from water filtration. White notes mournfully this site in particular is responsible for the formation of some sediment in the Kalamazoo.

Improvement of the Ferguson lot also made the agenda. Traditionally, the lot is used for faculty parking and tailgating before college football games. The bioswale would likely cut across its length diagonally. The lot currently features only a single layer of asphalt, but the College is ready and willing to direct expenses towards its enhancement. White emphasized the urgency involved, as the addition of another layer of asphalt is in the works. This addition would negate the possibility of a bioswale in that space because the ground would be too costly and difficult to drill through. White firmly insists “our opportunity is now” to approach bioswale establishment behind Ferguson.

Lincoln predicts that bioswale creation will take less than one month, but doesn’t know if it will ever be done, since such projects are constantly evolving and face potential delay due to the Board of Trustees’ initiatives. The Board has already effectively laid out the next fifty years of campus development, including a new basketball arena. Lincoln says water improvement did not make their list of priorities. Director of Grounds Mark Frever is investigating the possibility of developing a new water management plan to extend green-living to the entire campus. However, the work it would entail – ripping up asphalt to engineer bioswales – requires considerable funding. To Lincoln, this means the project “goes in the hopper with everything else the college needs.”

Despite this roadblock, Lincoln hopes the upcoming project will engage students and lend them a sense of accomplishment. If the venture successfully demonstrates the great advantages of a revolutionized water system, bioswales may reach beyond the college campus and into the surrounding town. Damon backs this idea with the assurance  it would prove an economic and environmental boon. She says a trendy, ecologically-conscious city would draw an array of new residents as “people would want to live here.”

The biofilter project is extremely relevant to the college’s current theme, Sustainability. The CSE and its affiliates hope to honor it in full, planning to devote time to the bioswales’ constant upkeep. They will work hard to ensure that someday, the “Caution: This Water is Unsafe to Drink” sign pinned alongside the Kalamazoo may be uprooted from an enriched soil.

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Photos by Emma Planet and courtesy of GS&P Dialogue

About Emma Planet 18 Articles
Emma is a first-year at Albion College from Sterling Heights, Michigan. She is pursuing a double-major in English and Environmental Studies as well as a pre-law concentration. She uses her writing to raise awareness about environmental issues and adores pretzels paired with junior mints. Add her on Twitter: @PlanetEmma29

1 Comment

  1. Hello,

    We are working on educational signage for a low impact development project and would like to find out if we could have permission to use the graphic in this article “The basic structure of a typical bioswale.” This is a great graphic that is simple and easy to understand. If we are allowed to use this graphic, would there be a high-resolution copy available for use?

    Thank you very much,

    Becky Roark
    Project Manager
    Illinois River Watershed Partnership

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