A Field of Greens
The Austin Chapter is revitalizing the Cedar River . . . one rain garden at a time.
What started as a field of non-native grass blossomed into a rain garden of prairie flowers and grasses that returned native habitat to Mill Pond. The garden will help improve water quality in the Cedar River and beyond.
Mill Pond is a man-made lake on the Cedar River, which winds through the city of Austin and eventually connects downstream with the Iowa River. The pond is a popular spot for outdoor recreation. In 2010, the American Rivers organization ranked Cedar River as the country’s fifth most endangered river. According to the ranking report, “Cedar River harbors globally rare plant communities, provides critical habitat for fish and wildlife, and is a popular destination for paddlers and anglers. However, outdated flood management and poor watershed planning are impacting public health and safety by causing pollution and increasing the risk of flood damage.”
The League’s Austin Chapter #10 has been working on a variety of projects to improve the water quality in Cedar River and its tributaries. Chapter vice president Mark Owens dreamed up the Mill Pond rain garden project and worked to identify partners and funding sources to make it a reality. Partners include the Austin School District, Mower County Water and Soil Conservation District, Cedar River Watershed District, A.C.E.S. (Austin Coalition for Environmental Sustainability), and Spruce-Up Austin. Minnesota Waters provided a $5,000 grant to support the project, and Austin Chapter #10 donated another $1,000.
This spring, League members teamed up with volunteers from partner organizations — even a few passers by who stopped to help — to plant and flag 2,400 plant plugs, seed two and a half acres with native prairie flowers and grasses, and install fencing to reduce goose and human disruption. Staff from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources helped select the plants for the rain garden. “We went through a list of plants and made sure they were appropriate for this ecosystem,” says Owens. “We’re putting back what was here. I didn’t realize that there are a dramatically large number of insects that don’t use non-native plants.” Staff from the Austin Park, Recreation and Forestry Department prepped the area and watered it for several days afterwards to keep the prairie growing. “It has been an exceptional growing year. Some of the plants put in as plugs are already reaching three to four feet tall and are full of blossoms,” Owens added.
In October, another 1,000 plants were installed. The majority of the work was completed by students from local high school biology, landscape, and environmental education classes. League members prepped the site and drilled holes for the plants, which were larger than the plugs and should fill in more quickly. The students plan a third round of planting next spring.
The rain garden will filter pollutants out of rain water headed for the pond and reduce rainfall runoff (a major cause of flooding along Cedar River). It will also be used as an outdoor classroom by Austin High School students, who will collect seeds from this year’s plantings to grow native plants in their greenhouse for future prairie plantings. “We don’t have a final tally yet,” says Owens, “but the value of the project should be $20,000 plus by the time we get it all said and done.”
For more information about this and other Austin Chapter projects, please visit the Austin Chapter Web site.