Last week, I attended the Building Sustainable Cities conference in Dubuque (Dubuque County), held at the convention center down on the Mississippi River. A few blocks away is the Bee Branch Creek restoration project, an innovative public-private partnership designed to address both the problem of recurring flooding in this urban neighborhood, and also provide a better standard of living and improved community life for its residents. Strategic use of small wetlands in Bee Branch Creek is part of this exciting success story! I learned that story during a bicycle tour on a recent beautiful autumn day.
We started at the end of the line: the downstream portion—Lower Bee Branch. Our first stop was at a small pavilion overlooking a large detention basin—a sizeable reservoir for floodwater. Near the inflow to the basin (that is, where the creek enters the basin) are floating wetland islands. A series of these islands are found along the creek as we head upstream. Allow me to quote from the project website:
The project consisted of 14 floating islands of various sizes with a total combined area of 2,674 sq. ft. The buoyant raft structures are made from a 100% recycled BPA-free PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic. This is the same plastic used to make plastic bottles. The islands in the Bee Branch Creek kept around 67,000 plastic drinking bottles out of landfills! The islands are planted with aquatic vegetation such as Sedges, Wild Rye, Blue Flag Iris, New England Aster, Marsh Marigold, Swamp Milkweed, and Cardinal Flowers. The islands are anchored to the bottom of the creek so they can adjust to the changing water level. The plastic raft material and suspended root systems create an ideal growing surface for bio-film and microbes to break down pollutants such as phosphorus and nitrogen that cause odor and algae issues.
The vegetation was a bit faded when I saw it (to be expected in October in Iowa), but still pretty. I hope to go back and see them again in other seasons.
We biked through industrial areas and busy roads until we reached the old neighborhood at the heart of the project—the community which had been so challenged by aging infrastructure, declining socioeconomic status, and repeated flooding. A run-down brick warehouse and scrapyard symbolized the old, decaying urban environment.
A short distance away, one enters a different world: an example of what a rejuvenated urban neighborhood can be. An attractive sign tells the story of this remarkable transformation.
The educator in me loves the use of maps and graphics to draw in the reader, and I hope and believe that engaging the visitor in the history and science of the project will aid in its appreciation. There’s even a list of action items for those wishing to do their part.
Our tour guides explained that in fact, a great deal of time, money, and effort were required to make this happen. It required sacrifices from residents as well. But now, those living in the area can really enjoy their waterway. They take pride in the fact that residents of other, tonier neighborhoods come here to enjoy these amenities. I saw walkers and bikers on the path running through the site. Children climbed on the structures and refreshed at the drinking fountain. During part of our tour, local youth joined us on their bikes and skateboard.
Along the way, we saw areas of lawn or sidewalk covered by silts and sediments from flooding; a portion of the path had just been reopened, in fact. The project was doing its job: Bee Branch was flooding in a more acceptable manner. I believe that clever use of wetlands can help clean other streams and rivers, and ameliorate flooding elsewhere too. The flora can beautify a neighborhood, and help citizens enjoy their natural environment. Having people walk their dog, sit on a bench, enjoy live music or kids playing outside, are all ways we can connect and build community, and make our cities–and our lives—better. We can choose to celebrate our wetlands, and enjoy the many benefits they provide, including enhancing our municipalities—as we saw at Coralville, for example. It’s time to work with, and celebrate, our wetlands. I hope you’ll join me!