Pond, Park and Classroom: Big Plans for Webster's Natural Area

Oct. 31, 2013

Pond, Park and Classroom: Big Plans for Webster's Natural Area

ST. LOUIS - More than 700 students live on Webster University’s campus, but this corner of Webster Groves is also home to frogs, insects and even a family of Mallard ducks that have been spotted walking across Edgar Road. Making sure that everyone co-exists in the most sustainable way possible is a current project of the Sustainability Coalition. 

Adjunct Biology Professor Jeff DePew, along with more than a dozen student, staff, and faculty volunteers, labored tirelessly as a part of the annual Webster Works Worldwide service day removing algae, trash, debris, weeds, and non-native plants from the University’s Natural Area, that small body of water that sits behind the Garden Avenue parking garage.

“When we have the opportunity to restore these natural habitats in our urban community, we would be crazy not to. What most don’t understand is that every drop of rain and act of littering on and near campus grounds contaminates the pond," DePew said. “More than 50 percent of the campus storm water, every dumped Coke, flicked cigarette, cup thrown out the window ends up in this area. It’s staying right here on campus.”

While most students refer to this part of campus as “the pond,” the official name is the Natural Area, a bio-retention basin designed to collect and filter storm water from campus. Over the past three years, Depew and a number of students, faculty and interested members of the St. Louis community have spent more than 300 man-hours developing the Natural Area. Thanks to funds from the University, sponsorship and partners from local organizations and businesses, these volunteer hours have helped develop the area to more than just a basin of water. The area now has a sign for visitors and student-created plans to further develop it into a living classroom for the campus and community, that also will serve as a natural park where students and the community can relax.

“It’s important to nurture areas like this, because the constant expansion and building of impervious surfaces eliminate the homes of many native animals, forcing them out of their natural habitat,” DePew explained. “The main goal of the Natural Area is to restore this area to what it once was, to be a sanctuary for such wildlife. It’s one of a few, if not the only, entities in Webster that is a truly natural ecosystem.”

The Natural Area actually contains a groundwater seep that attracts migratory birds, and wildlife native to the area, DePew said. Technically, it’s a ‘bio-retention basin," but this fen or seep is vital to the area’s habitat, that also serves as a reminder of the region’s past. This basin serves as an ideal classroom for those studying biology, ecology, and other sciences, and is a living example of how an ecosystem works.

Biology students volunteer to help keep the Natural Area clean

During construction of the East Academic Building (EAB) in 2010, the University devised a system to manage the water and debris that came from the building and surrounding campus. The bio-retention basin was created but complaints about a foul smell coming from it led local groups to call the EPA, who in turn forced the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) to comply with the Clean Water Act’s regulations of storm water treatment. Water previously split into two concrete outlets and emptied into the MSD’s storm water system without any treatment. Now, MSD separately treats all storm water with UV light before entering any river.

After researching, Depew discovered the area was forested at one point, but due to development and expansion the area was cleared of most of the old growth trees. What remained after the development of the bio retention pond is a type of wetland,   a natural fen or seep, which is an area that remains wet no matter the conditions. Even after construction of the EAB and its rain garden was completed, the basin still remained filled with water due to this underground aquifer and the fen on the south side of the pond.

The natural wetland proposed an opportunity for hands on study and discovery for students. This led to Depew developing a three-week course - Environmental Sustainability on Campus - which allowed the students to study, restore and interact with the area. Due to student interest, the course has filled each year. Students in that class and in the years since have written and put into action a plan for further development of the wetland.

Those plans for the Natural Area include restoring native plants to the habitat and creating a viewing area where the community can safely enjoy the natural area and habitats without disturbing the natural ecosystem. Other ideas include attracting more native wildlife and setting up areas for students to research and study the surrounding habitats without disturbing it.

“Engaging the public is critical to the long-term success of the Natural Area,” said Brad Wolaver, Webster University’s sustainability coordinator, “As a unique campus and community structure, this transformation of a storm water feature into a natural area establishes Webster University as a leader in sustainable green infrastructure practices. It also provides a great platform for student and community engagement, research, and education, fostering opportunities to create a culture of sustainability unique to our campus.”

“What’s exciting is the opportunity for the city to partner with the University. This helps pull the entire community together,” said Paul Marske, Webster Groves citizen and chair of the Webster Groves Sustainability Commission. “Basically, I think it’s awesome.”