DROPS project rips up lawns, plants rain gardens at Grizzly Hill School on San Juan Ridge | TheUnion.com

DROPS project rips up lawns, plants rain gardens at Grizzly Hill School on San Juan Ridge

Grizzly Hill student Kara Rainville helps plant drought tollerant vegetation at the school's rural Nevada County campus Tuesday afternoon for a program in conjunction with Sierra Streams Institute.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com |

Tiny Grizzly Hill School is in the final stages of some cutting-edge green design, with every grade participating this week and next in planting rain gardens throughout the campus on the San Juan Ridge.

The rain gardens are part of a $140,000 Drought Response Outreach Programs for Schools grant funded by the state Water Resources Control Board, said principal James Berardi.

The project, which is designed to reclaim water from impermeable runoff areas such as roofs, parking lots and walkways, came about as a response to five years of drought.

Berardi said the Twin Ridges Elementary School District has been working with Sierra Streams Institute to develop and implement the grant for the last three years. On Tuesday, Sol Henson and Devin Cormia, the co-directors of education for the institute, were at Grizzly Hill School with restoration ecologist Denise Della Santina, helping students landscape the rain gardens — large engineered depressions in the ground that hold water so it can be slowly reabsorbed. “Slow it, spread it, sink it,” Henson explained of the process.

Before breaking Sarah Johnson’s first and second-grade class into planting groups, the staffers from Sierra Streams Institute demonstrated the process.


“What do we need to keep in mind?” Henson asked, sifting through the answers offered up by the pint-size gardeners.

“We have to pull the roots apart,” one boy responded.

Henson and Della Santina gave the students a crash course in gently removing the plants from their pots, separating out the roots and tamping down the soil.

Team Mugwort — named after one of the plants chosen by students last year — took charge of planting its namesake, as well as milkweed and rushes, in one of the rain gardens outside the school office. The DROPS project includes two other rain gardens, two planter boxes outside the library and a bio-swale above the basketball court designed to prevent sediment from washing down the slope and filling the drains.

The idea was for a low-impact development project, putting in structures that are drought-tolerant and that help manage stormwater off impermeable surfaces, Henson explained.

“One issue with impervious surfaces is, they collect a lot of gunk,” he said.

So as part of the process, the staff monitored the first round of water runoff from the roofs for metals such as nickel and lead, as well as nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen.

That runoff typically would go into storm drains and then into streams and rovers, Henson said; the rain gardens offer a way to collect and filter those contaminants before they reach the watershed.

The rain garden serves as a catch basin and a biological treatment system, he explained. The plants use the nutrients, and take metals out of the water system.

The garden is engineered to keep water away from building foundations and has an overflow system that also allows staff to measure infiltration rates — how much water the garden can actually process.


“I built a whole curriculum to go along with this project, more than 100 hours” worth, Henson said. The lesson plans included such topics as plant biology and how rain gardens work.

As he explained the project, Henson interrupted himself to provide some direction to a pair digging a hole too deep.

“Ivy — hold that plant exactly where you want it to be,” he tells a girl.

Henson later has Team Mugwort more closely examine the milkweed plants.

“Do you see any creatures?” he asked.

“Yeah — aphids!”

“Why are we not that concerned?” Henson prodded.

“There are not that many,” is one response.

With a little direction, Henson brought up plant dormancy, and the fact that the aphids are not likely to hurt the plants and will provide “little snacks” for the birds in the winter.

The rain gardens were marked off with different-colored flags for the types of plants going in. Rushes and grasses that can handle more water are in the lower levels of the gardens, with deer grass, which acts as a filter, near the inlet pipes. The upland plants — the mugwort and milkweed — are more drought tolerant.

The project will wrap up in the spring, Henson said. He hopes to have interpretive signage that includes drought strategies people can use at home. He also will be putting together a maintenance plan with help from the older students.

“It is interesting to be doing this project in a rural setting,” Henson said, noting water reclamation projects typically are done in urban areas. “There’s no reason it can’t be a focus in more rural settings. This is such a great opportunity for kids to learn about water cycles, plants … There are so many different science aspects that can be tied into it.”

With the older students, Cormia said, the curricula gets into pollution sources and how plants filter out pollutants.

“It’s great to get kids involved at such a young age, letting them know they can have a role to play in making things better” for the environment, he said.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lkellar@hotmail.com.

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