Students in the UGA Environmental Practicum gain hands-on experience solving environmental problems for stakeholder clients—usually local governments, state agencies, or non-governmental organizations—across the state. Recently, however, they have been working for a client much closer to home. Since 2011 they have been helping the UGA restore the health of Lilly Branch, a stream that flows through campus.
The Environmental Practicum is a graduate service learning course in the Odum School of Ecology. Students from programs including ecology, law, environmental design, engineering, forestry and business work together in interdisciplinary teams, applying policy, design and ecological principles learned in the classroom to real-world environmental problems.
Lilly Branch is 2.5 miles long and feeds the North Oconee River. It rises just south of Five Points and for much of its length flows beneath UGA in a pipe before emerging at the Lamar Dodd School of Art. Its long history of impairment is reflected in its former nickname, “Stinky Creek.” The stream’s distinctive odor prompted water sampling by students in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, which led to the discovery that the creek had so much fecal coliform bacteria that it failed state water quality standards.
“Once we knew that the stream was impaired, the question was, what can we do about it?” said Laurie Fowler. Fowler, associate dean of the Odum School and co-director of the UGA River Basin Center, directs the environmental practicum. She said that this problem, requiring a mix of scientific, legal and design expertise, was tailor-made for the class.
In collaboration with the Office of Sustainability, the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, the College of Environment and Design, the Office of the University Architect and the Facilities Management Division at UGA and the Athens-Clarke County departments of Stormwater and Public Utilities, practicum students set to work.
Their first step was to develop a comprehensive watershed management plan. Students conducted a thorough assessment of the status of the Lilly Branch watershed. They researched its land use history, compiled a decade’s worth of water sampling results, including their own, and walked the stream to get a firsthand look at its problems.
They identified many sources of fecal coliform pollution, including drain pipes from apartment complexes, unchecked stormwater runoff from parking lots, dog waste, and leakage from dumpsters and underground sewer pipes. They found other problems as well, such as severe bank erosion and invasive species. They then proposed a set of management strategies to address each of the issues identified.
Subsequent classes have started implementing those strategies. One team of students took on the issue of dog waste. They held a focus group at a coffee shop in Five Points to find out what would motivate neighborhood dog owners to clean up after their animals, and learned that letting them know that dog waste could affect their own pet’s health was the most compelling message. Using that information they designed and installed waste collection stations in several heavily used dog-walking areas within the watershed.
Another team helped pinpoint sewer leaks. They surveyed storm drains in the Lilly Branch during dry weather to look for wet spots that could indicate sewer leaks. When they found one, they received permission from business owners in the area to flush a non-toxic dye down their toilets. The dye revealed the location of two sewer leaks, allowing the Athens-Clarke County Public Utilities department to conduct immediate repairs.
Education and outreach are part of the plan too. A practicum group developed a successful pilot program with Barrow Elementary School to provide stormwater education. They put together classroom lessons and activities and hosted a field trip for third grade students, making sure that the lesson plan met Georgia Performance Standards and would be easy to implement in other classrooms. That partnership is continuing.
Ongoing monitoring shows that health of Lilly Branch is improving—but it still has a long way to go. Fortunately, students in future environmental practicum classes will be on the job to help UGA manage campus streams in a sustainable manner.
For more information about the Environmental Practicum, see http://www.rivercenter.uga.edu/education/practicum.htm.