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Water-diversion project goes anywhere but down the drain

Students stock planters to absorb rain from Cedar Park Middle School's roof
by: Christopher Onstott Cedar Park eighth-graders Sam Waldman, Leah Sichel and Elizabeth Zegzula plant native grasses in a rain garden to help improve water quality in nearby Johnson Creek and Commonwealth Lake.

It was a bright, sunny Monday in Beaverton, but the project dirtying the hands of Cedar Park Middle School eighth-graders this particular afternoon is based on rain - lots and lots of rain.

About 90 students from Chris Basham's science classes spent the day planting native grasses and shrubs in planters designed to filter and absorb rainwater that's now diverted toward Johnson Creek and its tributaries.

Once the plants settle, downspouts from the school's 3,000-square-foot roof will be rerouted from their underground pipe system directly to the planters. The plants and soil will filter the inevitable winter and spring rainwater, letting it slowly percolate into the soil rather than rushing into the local watershed.

A collaboration between the school, the Beaverton School District, Clean Water Services and the city of Beaverton, the project is designed to reduce the flow of stormwater to Johnson Creek. Students get hands-on lessons about environmental protection, erosion, the connection between man's activities and nature and, for good measure, planting and horticulture.

'The idea is to reduce human impacts to our watersheds,' Basham said outside the school on a crisp but dry afternoon.

As the second of three shifts of students toiled in the rich, black soil, placing plants in the rectangular, waist-high concrete planters, Basham floated around the perimeter, gently offering guidance and encouragement.

'I'm always looking for ways to get out of the classroom,' he said. 'This fits really well with the curriculum. They're studying ecology and plants.'

Basham started planning the project last winter. He envisioned a more innovative rainwater-management system than the downspouts that lead to local creeks, creating erosion, pollution and flooding. Perhaps, he thought, the project could provide a learning opportunity for his students.

'I contacted Clean Water Services to see if there were any incentives,' he said. 'They said they might be able to help in other ways.'

The area to the left of the school's entrance was chosen as the best location for the planters.

'This makes (the concept) more accessible,' Basham said. 'I hope parents will come by and say, 'Hey, maybe we should disconnect our downspouts.''

Ely Teragli, public information specialist with Clean Water Services, a water-management utility committed to protecting the Tualatin River Watershed, said the Cedar Park project seeks to 'teach kids how to be watershed stewards,' she said.

Once the planters are completed, the agency will install interpretive signage to explain the project's goals and intentions.

'We'll be instrumental in keeping it going and teaching kids about it,' Teragli said, noting she was pleased to see students having fun while learning. 'They're involved and feel like they have an ownership stake in this - and the watershed as a whole.'

All of Basham's students were involved with the project's initial research and presented their findings in class. Clean Water Services officials chose the finalists, and the students voted for the winner.

Parker Newcomb's research led him to believe the ovate spike rush was the most appropriate plant for the project.

'It was one specific plant that was really tolerable with stormwater,' said the 13-year-old Beaverton student.

Maggie Clare, also 13, said the project raised her consciousness about how day-to-day activities can affect the larger picture both positively and negatively.

'When you're younger, you learn about things but think they're not gonna happen. Then you get older and you realize, 'Oh, they're real!' and are in your control to fix.'

Newcomb agreed with his classmate's sentiment.

'It changes the way you do things,' he said. 'I'd leave the lights on when I left a room. Now I turn them (off).'

Portland resident Leah Sichel, 13, said she's appreciated the independence and creativity the project provided her and her classmates.

'It gives us an opportunity to show what we can do. I think that's really cool.'