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A water-wise garden springs to life at school

Da Vinci students mix science and art to spread water quality awareness

When the April showers hit da Vinci Arts Middle School in Northeast Portland, kids come running to see their new water garden do its thing.

Rainwater that used to tax an overburdened city sewer system now ßows in new directions. Some pours into a pair of 2,500-gallon cisterns, where it is stored and reused.

The rest ßows into a pond, which in turn spills into a stream and empties into a wetland. There, a collection of plants helps clean the water of impurities through a process known as bioremediation.

Not long ago, all of this was concrete. Today, it is an elaborately designed reminder of the function of water in an urban environment.

'This garden makes the water visible,' says Erin Middleton, project manager for the nonproÞt group Urban Water Works. 'The water doesn't just disappear down a pipe and get shipped off to some plant. You see the water, and you can see it getting cleaned.'

A living lab, an outdoor gallery

The garden will be unveiled in an Earth Day celebration Saturday outside the da Vinci school. It is the product of a three-year collaboration between parents, students, teachers and various building professionals who donated their time or offered it at discounted rates.

The construction was funded through a $30,000 grant from the Bureau of Environmental Services, the city department charged with improving Portland's aging sewer system. By redirecting water out of the city system and into a wetland, the da Vinci students are doing their part to make the Willamette River cleaner. Science teacher Dan Evans estimates that the garden will take more than 200,000 gallons of rainwater out of the city sewage system each year. That will translate into less sewage ßowing into the Willamette during heavy rains.

Evans, the school's lead organizer for the garden project, touts it as a living laboratory for educating kids about plants and animals, one that offers vivid proof that functional water systems and the urban environment can co-exist.

Beyond that, Evans says, the garden serves as a 'blank canvas' for the creative students of da Vinci, an arts magnet school. 'This place has space for everybody to express themselves,' he says.

Already da Vinci students have brightened their garden with handmade tiles, stained glass creations and Tibetan prayer ßags.

Even the outfall that dumps rainwater into the pond is a work of art. When the garden was still a concrete tennis court, Evans had some kids sketch their ideas onto the concrete. Seventh-grader Keith Lamb drew a great dragon head, and Evans liked it so much he asked the student to replicate it for the outfall.

Not far from the dragon head is a driftwood bench dedicated to a da Vinci student who died young. Jean Iva Anderson was hit by a piece of driftwood while playing in the surf on the Oregon Coast in 2001. She died at age 13. Her father, Marshall Anderson, dragged a heavy drift log a mile up the beach and hauled it back to Portland to make the memorial bench that now faces the garden's pond.

Wild idea may spread

The garden is planted with native shrubs and trees, and the pond is stocked with Þsh that will soon be joined by salamanders and newts. A pair of mallard ducks has taken up part-time residence.

The ducks showed off a variety of crash landings into the new pond as a fast-working group of students, parents and volunteers put the Þnishing touches on the garden this week.

Middleton says she hopes the idea of water gardens will catch on in Portland. Urban Water Works, formed in 1999 by a group of people inspired by the award-winning work of landscape architect Betsy Damon, has started a similar project at Astor Elementary School in North Portland and is planning another at Bridger Elementary in Southeast Portland.

The group also has plans for a much more ambitious water garden on the Willamette. That project has been in the works for a while and even has a name Wapato Garden. But at this point, 'it's only on paper,' Middleton says.

Contact Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .