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Cumberland University and Lebanon collaborate for creative flood control

By Sara McManamy-Johnson sjohnson@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated May 3, 2014 at 12:07 AM

A recent collaboration between Cumberland University and the City of Lebanon could help alleviate some of the city’s flooding issues while also being more eco-friendly.

Cumberland University students and faculty joined city officials Thursday to plant a rain garden along McClain Avenue on the Cumberland campus. 

The months-long project grew from discussions between Cumberland biology instructor Kim Atwood and Lebanon’s stormwater coordinator, R.T. Baldwin, who worked together doing sampling at Sinking Creek.

“We were just tossing around ideas for projects, and I mentioned that I wanted to try doing a rain garden somewhere, and it just grew from there,” said Baldwin.

They began planning in September.

The city funded the project – which Baldwin said cost under $2,000 – through its stormwater budget.

Atwood said the rain garden will serve multiple purposes.

“Environmentally, the rain garden is a way to clean groundwater naturally through the plants,” said Atwood.

As the groundwater flows through the garden, the plants absorb not only extra nutrients, but also some of the toxins that may be in the water. As the water leaves the rain garden, whether it’s absorbed back into the soil or runs off, that water is much cleaner when it leaves, leading to healthier water systems.

Atwood said a standard “terrestrial” garden can also do so, but often not as effectively.

“They can help pick up or remove components out of the groundwater, but that water may flow over the ground very quickly, so the plants may not have time to absorb and uptake those nutrients or toxins,” she said.

Rain gardens, however, are typically planted in low-lying areas or surface depressions.

“It’s where rainwater will collect or stay for a longer period of time – it’s not just going to quickly roll over it…the plants have more time to absorb it,” said Atwood.

The rain gardens’ filtering abilities are also further enhanced by the materials under and around the plants.

According to Baldwin, the city’s street department excavated the site 4 feet deep and then overlaid 8 inches of stone, followed by 2 feet of soil, sand and mulch and then followed by a surface layer of stone. As the water works its way through those layers of material, it will help filter the water of debris plants don’t uptake.

Atwood said another goal for the rain garden was to help alleviate flooding.

“Since you do plant them in a low-lying area or depression, they can also help with flooding or just standing water in general,” she said.

Baldwin said that by holding the water longer, it can help reduce flooding issues downstream.

Lebanon Mayor Philip Craighead joined the group Thursday and expressed his appreciation for the project.

“Projects like this, it does help the people downstream on the amount of water that they get, and every little bit helps to prevent those big events,” said Craighead.

Cumberland University President Harvill Eaton agreed.

“These are the kinds of things that I think our community needs to be doing. We could use a lot of these everywhere,” said Eaton. “I’m thrilled with it. The more we can do at Cumberland with our community, the better.”

Students and faculty planted 80 individual plants of roughly 10 different species at the site.

“We’ve tried to pick an assortment of indigenous plants that, hopefully, are hearty and are good in this area, but are also good in rain gardens,” said Atwood.

Some of the species include day lilies, assorted irises, a maple and a poplar.

“It’s going to be beautiful next spring with all the blooms and everything,” said Baldwin.

Want to see more photos? Click here.

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