University Uses Mulch To Fortify River Banks and Protect Water Quality

January 30, 2018

Featured

Justin Stone (right) of the University of North Georgia’s (UNG; Dahlonega, Ga.) Environmental Leadership Center oversees water quality sampling on the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin. He and his students monitor sediment and bacteria concentrations for hazards that might affect the environment and public health of the watershed. Photo courtesy of Peggy Cozart, University of North Georgia.

Justin Stone (right) of the University of North Georgia’s (UNG; Dahlonega, Ga.) Environmental Leadership Center oversees water quality sampling on the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin. He and his students monitor sediment and bacteria concentrations for hazards that might affect the environment and public health of the watershed. Photo courtesy of Peggy Cozart, University of North Georgia.

Efforts by the University of North Georgia (UNG; Dahlonega, Ga.) to identify and restore parts of the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin impaired by bacterial contamination and soil erosion have proven the wisdom of an old maxim: keep it simple. Under an interdisciplinary collaboration, UNG students and faculty repurpose ordinary mulch to redirect runoff, seed green infrastructure measures, and preserve safe water quality throughout the region.

Innovative runoff management solutions are particularly important to the Chattahoochee River because of its clay-rich soil and the fact that its waters serve millions of southern U.S. residents. Unlike traditional soil types, clay absorbs rainwater slowly and stunts vegetation growth, generating more runoff that ends up in the river.

“[Mulch] is one of the best and cheapest materials to restore bare clay soil and reduce soil erosion,” said Justin Ellis, director of UNG’s Environmental Leadership Center, which oversees an on-campus water quality laboratory, in a release. “If you can place it on top of bare land, it can do amazing things.”

Partnering to work smarter

During the last 30 years, UNG water laboratory students and faculty have monitored test sites along the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin in search of bacteria and sediment concentrations high enough to pose water quality problems for the rest of the system.

UNG water laboratory students and faculty apply geographic information systems to more accurately identify and respond to problem areas along the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin. Photo courtesy of Cozart, UNG.

UNG water laboratory students and faculty apply geographic information systems to more accurately identify and respond to problem areas along the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin. Photo courtesy of Cozart, UNG.

With advances in technology, UNG field hydrologists now receive aid from the university’s Institute for Environmental and Spatial Analysis (IESA). From inside a laboratory, IESA researchers use geospatial models to “pinpoint” where the watershed may be most vulnerable to contamination. Then, students from the water quality lab venture into the field to confirm or correct those predictions.

That’s where the mulch comes in. When piled atop clay soil, mulch slows rainwater such that the rainwater can be absorbed into the ground rather than swept into the river. The mulch decomposes captured nutrients passively and releases them into the soil, spurring plant growth and restoring the surrounding landscape.

“If you can strategically place the mulch where the most sediment is leaving the landscape, then over a period of decades you can restore all of your most degraded land,” Ellis said.

Effective, plentiful, and free

The banks of the Upper Chattahoochee River, the primary source of drinking water for many, are heavy with clay-based soil which requires specialized solutions for runoff management. UNG has used mulch to retains stormwater and spurs vegetation growth. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The banks of the Upper Chattahoochee River, the primary source of drinking water for many, are heavy with clay-based soil which requires specialized solutions for runoff management. UNG has used mulch to retain stormwater and spur vegetation growth. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Best of all, the UNG water quality program shows no signs of running out of materials anytime soon. Both Hall County and Lumpkin County, where UNG’s main Dahlonega campus and its Gainesville campus are respectively located, make free mulch available for locals.

“Anytime there is a storm, the county goes out and cuts down trees and branches to make wood chips,” said Sudhanshu Panda, a UNG environmental science professor who works within IESA. “And then they just leave it out for residents or transport it to dumping locations for county residents to take if needed.”

And the UNG researchers are no strangers to mulch — as they continue to rehabilitate the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin, they also place mulch and plant vegetation periodically along the nearby Chestatee and Soque rivers under projects dating back to 2004.

Learn more about UNG’s use of mulch to preserve water quality at the university’s website.

─ Justin Jacques, WEF Highlights

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