Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner: Gardening for Water Conservation

August 4, 2018

By Ryan Nelson, Wesleyan University.

Like most kids, I was fascinated with water. From hosting car window raindrop drag races on road trips with my siblings, to spending every summer weekday at the pool (my mom called it her daycare-in-disguise), to reverting the backyard into mud by treating it like a slip-in-slide after every large rain, I couldn’t stop thinking about water.

Nowadays, water is still at the forefront of my attention, but for entirely different reasons. Because water is so readily-available in the United States, we don’t think about our complicated water usage, specifically about our water quality and maintenance systems. Even as an environmental science and engineering major, before this summer when I thought about water problems, I only considered the problems and damage induced by water shortages. Except for one flash-flood I’d lived through, I had spent almost no time thinking about the problems created by excess water. These difficulties range from short-term backyard flooding to cancer-inducing mold, to extreme home damage and death in worst-case scenarios.

In Michigan, the Water Resource’s Commissioner (formerly the Drain Commissioner) is the individual tasked with alleviating the problems associated with too much water. Many of these potential problems stem from something so abundant we almost never think about it: concrete. Most concrete is impervious, meaning that when water lands on concrete it pools or travels down the slope, eventually traveling into drains and finally rivers. While traveling, this water picks up non-point contaminants such as motor oil, E. coli from animal feces, and various other sources, which eventually pollute rivers. The volume of water which currently flows is also much higher than before humans placed concrete. Before, plants and soils would absorb some of the water and help water percolate into the ground, preventing it from entering the above ground water system. Concrete does not allow water to pass through, increasing volume. This increase is a problem because higher volumes of water lead to increased erosion of stream and riverbanks.

Most of my time working for the Water Resources Commissioner this summer has been spent working to alleviate these river pollution and erosion problems through the usage of rain gardens under my mentor, Catie Wytychak. Rain gardens are like normal gardens except they’re planted with only plants native to Michigan, as these plants help rain gardens serve their purpose of holding, filtering, and draining large amounts of water into the groundwater system.

Just like normal gardens, Rain gardens need a large amount of maintenance. One of my favorite jobs over the summer was working at and leading youth volunteer days at the county-operated rain gardens, in which groups of ten or more awesome kids from the local YMCA worked to maintain the gardens. They helped spread mulch, water, and even got to experience every kid’s dream job, weeding. Shockingly, even to me, weeding is not fun on its own. Weeding with a group of ten+ students, on the other hand, is incredibly entertaining. From the kid that swore on the “absolute fact” that dinosaurs were still roaming some parts of the Earth, to the elementary schoolers with more dramatic love lives than Taylor Swift, to the kids that spent two hours arguing over Marvel vs DC superheroes, it’s impossible to be more entertained while working than while working around kids.

While maintaining the gardens is extremely important, measuring the effectiveness of the gardens is equally crucial. Another one of my jobs was to conduct and produce a report on the impact of rain gardens on the Arbor Oaks neighborhood, which has a history of heavy flooding problems. This process included reading the master’s project which instigated the Arbor Oaks Rain Gardens design, creating the survey with Catie, knocking on 50+ houses, and finally assessing the survey’s results. After five days of door knocking, I developed an immunity to large, barking dogs and a tolerance for having doors slammed in my face.

In addition to this work, I also became a Master Rain Gardener after designing a rain garden, learned to classify soils (an invaluable skill for my future in agriculture), wrote brochures, assisted with Huron River Day, developed excellent relationships with my mentors, and absorbed as much knowledge as possible from every given task.

I had an absolute blast this summer. My mentors helped me understand both the individual pieces and the big picture of storm water management and helped me develop a useful set of tools for later use in life. I’d like to thank Catie Wytychak for being an extremely welcoming, helpful, and knowledgeable mentor. I’d also like to thank Deborah Shad, Harry Sheehan, and Evan Pratt for helping me understand the inner workings of the office and consider future career options. I’d like to thank my program coordinators Kafi Laramore-Josey and Beatriz Canas for fitting me with this excellent internship, and Dr. Dorceta Taylor for the amazing opportunity to participate in Doris Duke Conservation Scholars.