Project aims to bring wetlands back to life

02/01/2013 1:00 PM |
CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Bishop McGann-Mercy High School principal Carl Semmler (left) and Shawn Leonard, a Mercy graduate and architect for the school's planned pond remediation project, at the foot of the pond on school grounds last week.

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Bishop McGann-Mercy High School principal Carl Semmler (left) and Shawn Leonard, a Mercy graduate and architect for the school’s planned pond remediation project, at the foot of the pond on school grounds last week.

Bishop McGann-Mercy High School is nearing completion of a pond remediation project that aims to bring dying wetlands back to life, while educating students about remediation and stormwater pollution.

If successful, school and environmental officials say, it will also help protect the health of the Peconic Bay system.

“What’s very cool about this endeavor is it’s going to take this drainage area and make it a living, breathing thing,” said Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, a partner in the project.

The health of the more than 100,000 square feet of wetlands on the Mercy campus has been declining for some time, principal Carl Semmler said. He and Shawn Leonard, a 1985 Mercy graduate and the architect on the project, have unveiled the next steps in a plan they say will naturally filter pollutants from the pond before the water reaches the Peconic.

They will create what Mr. Leonard calls a “plunge pool,” a man-made pool that draining stormwater will enter “so that sediment can settle things like gravel or other pollutants,” Mr. Leonard said. The water will then make its way down a man-made stream, powered by the area’s elevation, before eventually entering surrounding wetlands, according to the project plans.

Surrounding the plunge pool, stream and natural wetland area, they will add plants to absorb nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, pollutants known for their harmful effects on aquatic ecosystems, according to the New York State Environmental Protection Agency.

“The plants will be the natural filter,” Mr. DeLuca said. “Essentially, the hope is that the water will have high oxygen, lower turbidity and be healthier downstream.”

Since the project began in November, the area has been stripped of invasive plants, identified with the help of Riverhead Town and Group for the East End. Plant and tree life native to the area have been protected, with the state DEC inspecting progress of the project intermittently, Mr. Semmler said.

They will use the remediation project as an opportunity to teach students about the wetlands, integrating it into the science curriculum.

“We will be teaching children how to understand stormwater pollution, the cause and effects of it,” said Deborah Kneidl, director of institutional advancement for the school. “Ultimately, the goal is that we are training stewards for the future.”

“We actually got out there before the construction and took some baseline data on the site prior, so we can see how it changes throughout the different stages,” said Mercy graduate Jennifer Skilbred, educational coordinator for Group for East End, who has been helping set up the educational component. It will include field data collection and lab experiments.

Mr. Semmler said the plan is to build a laboratory adjacent to the wetlands so students can perform experiments close by.

“The ideal thing would be for a student to take a seed, grow it into a wetland plug and plant that plug,” Mr. Semmler said. “They can take the plug full of the pollutants and the poisons and then test the leaf structure of that plant to show how much poison or pollutants it absorbed.”

That means students will be maintaining the wetland with fresh plants while removing pollutants from the wetland, Ms. Kneidl said.

Mercy plans to invite other schools and universities to utilize the area, and is in the early stages of collaborating with universities, including Molloy College, Fordham University, and St. Joseph’s College. “I have spoken with one professor at each school and they have interest in being involved, getting their students to do research projects there. It is exciting stuff,” Ms. Skilbred said.

The project could also introduce students to alternate career options they might not have considered before, she said.

The project has been in the works since 2006, when Mercy applied for a DEC permit. It was granted the permit in 2008 and then applied for funding from the NYS Environmental Facilities Corporation. After its third application, it was awarded $750,000 in 2011 under the stipulation of a match commitment from Mercy alumni, bringing over $1 million in donations to the project, Ms. Kneidl said.

Mr. DeLuca said there is a lot to be learned from the project.

“The most important thing [is] that we come to understand what is going into that pond now,” he said. From that they can see the amount of pollutants that are entering western Peconic, endangering bay waters.

“The western part of the estuary has the greatest trouble. It is in that part that we have had brown tide algal blooms,” Mr. DeLuca said. “The more that we can do to help the better.”

The project is not without controversy, with at least one neighboring resident voicing concern. A project closely connected to the remediation project will fill in 17,000 square feet of adjacent wetlands to create a softball and practice field, with funding coming from private alumni donations. Those wetlands serve as an area for stormwater runoff, creating concern about possible flooding. The pond being remediated doesn’t currently pipe in stormwater runoff and, once it does, it will make up for the adjacent wetlands, Mr. Leonard said.

The remediation plan will also expand existing wetlands by about 53,000 square feet, making up for the lost wetland area, according to Aphrodite Montalvo, citizen participation specialist for the DEC, a stipulation needed in order to get the 2008 DEC permit.

“The DEC looks forward to the completion of this project and believes it will both improve the environmental quality of the area and serve as a valuable educational tool for the school,” Ms. Montalvo said.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter has also expressed support for the project, calling it a “win-win” at a Nov. 20 public hearing.

The remediation is on schedule and expected to be completed by May 2013, according to Mr. Semmler, who calls the project “a true partnership to try and bring the community together.”

cmiller@timesreview.com

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