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Best Seat in the Class Is in the Middle of a Stream

Whoever suggested that college professors and students are insulated from reality in their “ivory tower” world of academia never set foot in Chas Gowan’s First-Year Experience classes at Randolph-Macon College.

For the past seven years, Gowan and fellow professors have involved their students in the nitty-gritty Gowan1 business of stream restoration -- identifying problems, finding solutions, consulting with citizens and government officials, developing restoration plans,  grant writing, construction and, earlier this month, digging holes and planting 2,500 trees and shrubs.

As a result, Gowan (in photo at left) and his students have restored 1,200 feet of Mechumps Creek, a headwaters Chesapeake Bay stream that gets its start on the campus of Randolph-Macon, a small liberal arts college in Ashland, Va., about 15 miles north of Richmond. Thanks to their efforts, Mechumps Creek and the downstream Pamunkey River, York River, and Chesapeake Bay will be healthier places for critters and people.

Mechumps Creek is perhaps a typical stream in Bay country. Once a pristine waterway meandering Before1 through Central Virginia forests and farmland, it has over the years become the victim of rapid hard-surface development and damaging stormwater runoff directed into it from culverts and pipes. Parts of the stream in Ashland are deeply scarred and eroded by the powerful pulses of runoff that course through whenever it rains. The stream is also on EPA’s “dirty waters list” because of bacteria pollution washing off surrounding areas.

So starting in 2003, Gowan, an environmental studies professor, had students in his First-Year Experience class – a required theme-based, interdisciplinary course that connects students to each other, faculty, different academic disciplines, and the community – focus on Mechumps Creek. Students that year developed a watershed management plan for the creek and identified key goals for its restoration.

Before2 Students in Gowan’s 2006 First-Year Experience course looked at the effect that nearby development has had on the creek and the options for reversing the damage.

“A key element (of the course) centered on understanding the community’s social organization, evaluating changes in land use over time, and assessing the various stakeholders’ opinions about the stream,” the college’s website says. “As a culminating class project, students presented their plans for restoring Mechumps Creek to the Ashland Town Council. The students’ proposal was approved, and the Town Council provided the initial $100,000 to support the project.”

After2 Students in a 2008 environmental policy class taught by Professor Jeter Watson wrote and won a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to begin design work on the project, and last year Gowan won a second NFWF grant to begin construction. The town and grant funding – totaling about $245,000 -- allowed the restoration project to break ground in November.

With key assistance from the Williamsburg Environmental Group, Environmental Quality Resources, and Ashland staff, about 1,200 feet of the creek – the most severely degraded section – was physically reconfigured to better accommodate the new realities of urban runoff. After1

The badly eroded creek channel was smoothed out and made to meander, and a wide new flood plain was constructed on either side of the creek to accept high water and reduce the energy of fast-moving flows during storms.

Finally, some 20 Randolph-Macon students turned out earlier this month to plant 2,500 native trees and shrubs along the creek. The vegetation will help stabilize the stream bank, trap and filter pollution, and provide food, shelter, and homes for wildlife. Click here to see more photos of the project.

Digging Students in Gowan’s future classes will monitor the health of the creek in the months and years to come, and possibly explore funding to restore other stretches of the creek and tackle its ongoing bacteria problems.

Former students, now Randolph-Macon alums, who have seen the completed project “almost can’t believe their early research and planning have come to fruition,” Gowan says. “It’s really gratifying to them.”

The First-Year Experience class also has altered the course of some students, he said. One was so Digging3 motivated by the creek project she changed her career plans completely, from medical school to biological research. She’s now doing graduate work in fish and wildlife at Virginia Tech.

The Mechumps Creek project also caught the attention of the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, which gave Randolph-Macon its 2009 Urban Forestry Award for the college’s  work restoring water quality and habitat in the creek. 

The spring that feeds Mechumps Creek likely once surfaced on Randolph-Macon’s campus. However, that spring and the nascent creek was piped, buried, and built upon by the college many years ago.

“I’ve always felt the college was a little responsible” for the creek’s recent woes, Gowan says a bit sheepishly.

Consider that score settled.

By Chuck Epes
Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photos courtesy of Randolph-Macon College)


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