Houston-area schools launch floating wetland islands

November 09, 2013

By Mary Carol Edwards

LEAGUE CITY, Texas — Texas’ first public demonstration of floating wetland islands were installed at Clear Creek Independent School District’s Education Village in League City on November 10.

The floating wetlands showcase a new technique for improving water quality in stormwater detention ponds while providing students with a hands-on way to learn about their local environment.

“Besides providing a great learning experience for the kids, we are demonstrating how water quality improvements with wetlands can integrate with flood control,” said Mary Carol Edwards, a stormwater wetlands specialist at the Texas Coastal Watershed Program and the project coordinator.

The floating wetlands installation is the first project toward that vision of an outdoor classroom. The islands are buoyant rafts of recycled plastic fibers on which wetland plants can grow. Roots work their way through the mesh of the islands and into the water, where they take up fertilizer and other contaminants washed into the pond with the stormwater. The rafts also develop communities of wetland microorganisms, which break down pollutants in the water. The islands are anchored and can rise and fall as the water level in the pond changes.

On a recent Saturday morning, students and volunteers dug wetland plants from the habitat ponds at Ed White Elementary in El Lago. Mossman Elementary and Clear Falls High School students in League City followed up by potting the plants at a series of afterschool events. As they worked, they learned how their campus is connected to the Dickinson Bayou watershed and the importance of wetlands for habitat and for filtering urban runoff pollutants on the way to the bayous and bays. Their 10-acre stormwater basin is already attractive to wildlife — ospreys, roseate spoonbills and blue crabs have been spotted there — and science teachers are developing an outdoor classroom curriculum so that students can benefit from this unique natural setting on campus.

Floating wetlands are one kind of stormwater wetland that can be used in ponds where the slopes are too steep and water levels too deep or variable for natural rooted wetlands.

“Stormwater detention basins are everywhere, and they don’t have to be bleak no-go zones,” Edwards said. “They can be vibrant habitats that improve water quality as well as do their job for flood control.”

The project is a partnership between CCISD and the Texas Coastal Watershed Program, part of the Texas Sea Grant College Program and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, with participation from the Texas Master Naturalists, and the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Environmental Institute of Houston. Funding is through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Galveston Bay Estuary Program.

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Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.