Floating Wetlands – Making Waves in Outdoor Education

Clean water. Healthy ecosystems. Abundant
wildlife. These are qualities we all look for in our environment and our recreation
areas. And wetlands can play a major role in creating a healthy environment by reducing
chemical compounds and bacteria in stormwater that runs off city streets and neighborhoods.
When contaminated stormwater flows into creeks, bayous, rivers, and lakes, it can harm water
quality, kill fish, and cause an overgrowth of algae. Wetland plants help prevent this
by cleaning the water before it enters larger systems. When detention ponds are built to provide
drainage for new construction, they are not considered suitable for any purpose other
than holding stormwater runoff for flood control. But environmentally conscious Texans are helping
to change that perception. Through a grant from the Texas Commission on Environmental
Quality, the Texas Coastal Watershed Program — a partnership between the Texas A&M AgriLife
Extension Service and Texas Sea Grant — has helped to create a floating wetland in the
detention pond at the Education Village in League City. The first floating wetland at
a Texas school, it is expected to demonstrate a new way to improve water quality in Dickinson
Bayou, which has low levels of oxygen and high levels of bacteria. Ultimately, wetlands
will help improve water quality and wildlife habitats in Galveston Bay, which is vital
for commercial and recreational fishing, boating, and bird watching. “The importance of the floating wetlands
for being at a school is that the children, the students, get to be involved in the project
and it’s a direct way that they can learn about their natural habitat.” The Education Village is home to an elementary,
an intermediate, and a high school in the Clear Creek Independent School District. The
campus is on the North American flyway for hundreds of migratory bird species, and as
many as half of all these species nest or feed in wetlands. Why create floating wetlands? Because the
design of most detention ponds makes this the most flexible and durable type of wetland. Mary Carol Edwards: “They try to maximize
the volume by having fairly deep ponds and fairly vertical slopes — not very good habitat
for wetlands. But if you have a system where you can free the wetlands up from these slopes
by putting them in the center, in a buoyant raft that can rise and fall, then you get
those wetland functions — and it looks pretty cool.” Floating wetland project leader Mary Carol
Edwards recruited Texas Master Naturalist volunteers and Watershed Program staff to
make up the Wetland Restoration Team. They collected wild plants from local public lands
where wetland plants thrive, and also from a nearby elementary school that had wetland
plants to spare in their habitat garden. Then, students at the Education Village helped process
and pot the plants to get them established for replanting. Once established, the plants were placed into
three floating “islands” made of a dense mesh of plastic fibers that have been recycled
from soda bottles and other plastic waste. This mesh provides a structure for populations
of beneficial, water-cleaning microorganisms to grow — the way plant, soil, and root
interactions function in a natural wetland. On the day of the floating wetland launch,
they were towed into the center of the detention basin and anchored into place, where they
will rise and fall with changing water levels and be part of a setting where students can
learn about their environment. “In our state standards and in the national
standards, our students have to be very astute and very aware of environmental issues. Of
course understanding water and watershed, erosion, and all the difference pieces of
earth science, as well as physical science and chemistry too. There’s all of that involved,
all wrapped up into this floating wetlands project.” “I made a science fair project about wetlands,
and I wanted to know how do plants clean the water and how the water quality will be improved
when the wetlands islands have been installed. “Right now in my class we’re doing an
ecosystem project, and this is everything that I need to know about doing an ecosystem. The Texas Coastal Watershed Program and Master
Naturalists predict that the success of the floating wetland at the Education Village
will inspire wetland development in other areas of the community. “The real success is going to be is – it
works. Subdivisions can use it, parking lots, shopping centers, whatever!” “I really believe in no child left inside
— that the kids need to be outside and interact with the environment. And it’s real-world
connections to everything that they’re learning in the classroom. It opens the classroom doors
so that there are no doors anymore.” “The coolest thing that I think will happen
is watching the plants grow even more and seeing what heights they can grow and seeing
what kind of animals will come in.”

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