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Grass as a water filter: HCC students research best kinds to use in water gardens

Haywood Community College students are learning best management practices to reduce stormwater runoff by using the campus itself as laboratory, hoping to restore natural hydrology wherever possible as the campus grows and changes.

Preston Jacobsen, a sustainability analyst, said the campus has had a negative effect on Jones Cove Creek, which is the recipient of runoff from parking lots and other campus facilities. Sophomore students in the LID curriculum — which currently has en enrollment of 17 students — are using bioretention ponds and native plant research as part of their graduation project.

In the long run, the plan is for the project to mitigate the impact of development on the campus’s natural hydrology and native plant communities. Jacobsen said students will establish a “test meadow” of native grasses on a campus construction site to serve as a demonstration for converting lawn or forest to meadow, reducing landscaping maintenance needs and creating wildlife habitats on campus.

Jacobsen applied for and received a Greenforce Initiative Innovation Mini-Grant to help fund the project. HCC is one of only five community colleges in North Carolina to receive the grant. The Greenforce Initiative wants to create green career pathways leading to postsecondary credentials and family sustaining careers; increase access and success for lower-skilled adults; and use campus “greening” or sustainability efforts as “learning laboratories” for education and training.

Jacobsen said the grant is not driving the project at HCC, but that part of his job is seek out ways to bring money and investments to the college that will funnel back to students.

“Part of my responsibility is to enhance our instruction, so finding funds via grants or for our instructions to get professional development, the end goal is that it all that funnels back to what our students learn,” said Jacobsen.

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The co-mingling of classroom learning and on-campus sustainability is part of HCC’s mission, said Jacobsen.

“Our overarching theme here is to have a living laboratory. If we can give students hands-on experience, whether in a lab or with a physical project on campus, this is part of that mission set forth by (HCC President) Dr. Rose Johnson,” he said.

“We’re working with the Fish and Wildlife program to research native plants to see which will propagate best here, and then apply what we learn to our bioretention cells,” said Jacobsen.

HCC has become a leader in green initiatives and is the only community college in North Carolina that offers a degree in low-impact development major.

“We face a major challenge to retool and rebuild our workforce and meet the challenges of the future clean energy economy,” said Lisa Madry, Campus Field Director for the National Wildlife Federation. “The Greenforce Initiative will help accelerate America’s ability to tackle the climate crisis while creating economic opportunities and pathways out of poverty.”

“Students will earn real world experience through design, implementation and environmental monitoring of the funded project,” said Jacobsen. “All the while, they’ll be improving our campus through the restoration of native plant communities and enhancement of natural hydrology.”

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