Vol. 38, No. 18
By: Julia Harris
When some people look at the muddy creek running through Ohio State Marion’s campus, they only see a ditch. But when Bob Klips, an associate professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology, looks at the same ditch, he sees an opportunity for change.
Grave Creek, as the ditch is officially known, is the site of a proposed restoration project undertaken by Klips and a team of environmentally minded faculty on both the Marion and main campuses. Covering a swath of creek not quite a mile in length, the proposal calls for creating a new, more naturally curving channel that will be able to accommodate flood patterns and sustain an educationally valuable habitat. That habitat includes a roughly 1.5-acre wetland that will improve the water quality of Grave Creek itself.
“Wetlands are like nature’s kidneys: They’re actually able to filter water,” explained Bill Mitsch, director of the Wilma H. Schiermeier Olentangy River Wetland Research Park in Columbus. Water quality testing at the Marion site indicates that runoff from agricultural fields has made Grave Creek high in phosphorous and nitrates, chemicals that could be reduced by a wetlands.
The Marion wetlands also will function like an aquatic outdoor lab where faculty and students can conduct experiments and learn about ecology.
The tradition of environmental education is one the Marion campus is proud to continue. It is already home to the Prairie Nature Center, a 10-acre plot of land complete with a pond and garden that hosts educational activities for university and community students. To Klips, who cheerfully describes himself as a “tree-hugging environmentalist,” the wetlands project is a logical extension of that commitment to a responsible management of natural resources.
“The practice in rural counties like ours has been to facilitate drainage in a heavy-handed or aggressive way, by clearing all the natural vegetation and dredging out material to create these straight and smooth channels,” Klips said. “That happened not just with Grave Creek but with several other creeks and ditches in Marion County.”
Mitsch said the kind of damage done to Grave Creek is typical not just of Marion streams but to waterways all over the Midwest. The result has been artificial systems that have to be maintained by county engineers — which means that every so often, the vegetation gets mowed, the channels get dredged and the local ecology gets disrupted all over again.
“We decided to come up with a system that can take care of itself and let the engineers off the hook,” Mitsch said.
The system they came up with, after months of careful planning and testing, comes with an estimated price tag of $300,000. The funds will likely be paid by Marion County developers as part of a legal bartering system known as mitigation. If all goes as hoped, Mitsch said, the dirt should start flying next year as 16,900 cubic yards of soil are excavated for the new stream channel.
The plan also recommends construction of recreational elements like a bike path, an observation platform and a bridge — improvements that will encourage students and researchers to make use of what designers call the outdoor aquatic lab.
“It’s the ‘if you build it, they will come’ theory of wetlands design,” Mitsch joked.
He has plenty of experience to bring to the table: He shepherded the design and implementation of the Olentangy complex, a 30-acre park that features two kidney-shaped wetlands used as labs by graduate students and researchers. A more recent addition is the 7-acre oxbow, or U-shaped, wetland, popular with blue herons and bicylists who ride on the paved path.
For Klips, the ultimate goal is about students.
“Outreach is great, environmental stuff is great, but the most central thing is our students and our courses. Everything we do should have a direct benefit to them,” he said. “With improved natural resource facilities like the prairie and the wetlands, we can increase our natural resources coursework. And maybe even develop a major.”