CHAPEL HILL - While many people stayed inside to avoid the triple-digit heat index, a group of volunteers worked in the sun for hours last week – all in the name of water.
Nearly 50 men, women, and even a few kids from Friends of Bolin Creek and the Redwoods Group insurance company kicked off the Chapel Hill High School Water Sustainability Initiative.
From the crack of dawn volunteers worked around the campus, cleaning surrounding streams, diverting water from eroded areas and constructing an information kiosk.
“Not only is it great for the environment, but it’s great for education and the community,” said Betsy Kempter, educational outreach coordinator for Friends of Bolin Creek. “This is going to set the stage for when the students arrive in August and will be ready to start something new and exciting.”
The initiative is the brainchild of Rob Greenberg, an earth and environmental science teacher at the school. Greenberg and Kempter met at an environmental symposium in February and quickly came up with goals for reducing the high school’s “water footprint.”
Chapel Hill High lies on a graded piece of land which is home to Jolly Branch, a small tributary of Bolin Creek which, in turn, flows into Jordan Lake.
The problem, Kempter said, is that the school’s large, impermeable concrete footprint harms both streams.
“The issue is about infiltration,” she said. “When you put in all these impervious surfaces, all these buildings and rooftops, you get a lot of runoff. It brings a ton of water down the hill.”
Because it hasn’t been filtered by the ground and vegetation, this water contains pollutants that harm the creeks, Kempter added.
Keith Cooper, the chair of the school’s math department, said that during big storms, rain runoff can even damage the school itself.
“Since they built the bus lot, the water rushes down and comes into the classroom,” he said, pointing to a vent outside the room clogged by leaves and mold.
To combat these issues, the group plans to construct “rain gardens,” large depressions filled with nutrient-rich soil and vegetation, as well as green roofs topped with a similar mixture to help purify the runoff.
The long term goal is to work with N.C. State to develop an engineering plan for the school to better deal with the water problem, Kempter said.
Chapel Hill has an ordinance that requires developers to maintain the same volume of runoff before and after construction, and on June 26 Carrboro passed similar water control legislation.
The Redwoods Group, a for profit company that practices community service and social responsibility, got involved after one of its interns, Shalini Chudasama, proposed the partnership.
Chudasama, a student at UNC, said she saw the workday as a potential learning experience.
“We wanted people to learn and walk away knowing more about rain runoff,” she said. “We wanted to get people to think about it more and to have the opportunity for the conversation to continue. ”
Part of Greenberg’s plan is to use “hydrology tables” built during the workday to teach students about the behavior and importance of water.
The tables are large shallow boxes set on four legs that can be filled with sand, rocks, or gravel, and tilted at various angles so that water runs down, mimicking a stream.
“You need to have projects like this that are real world,” Greenberg said. “You need to see what these problems are, study them, and see what can be done better.”
The Chapel Hill resident, whose background is in geology, emphasized that understanding how water works is vital to our future.
“People need to know where their water comes from and understand how it fits into the big picture,” he said. “Water is life; you can’t live without it.”