Tabernacle Elementary School and Olson Middle School work together to control rainwater runoff

A rain garden and two bioswales will be put in place to improve local water quality.

The students at Tabernacle Elementary School and Olson Middle School, with the help of Rutgers University, have collaborated on two projects to improve their local environment. Tabernacle Elementary School has implemented a rain garden in its courtyard, while Olson Middle School will display two bioswales in front of the school.

The elementary school’s rain garden is a planted depression funded by a grant from Sustainable Jersey, and has been built as a means to control runoff, manage flooding and reduce the amount of pollution in the water. This is done by allowing the runoff to pool, instead of going directly into the street.

Once Olson Middle School found out that TES was making efforts to improve water quality, it was eager to get involved. It decided to transform existing retention swales into bioswales by planning to put native plants in place there. The school has removed turf grass to create a better environment for these plants, and students will plant directly into existing swales to create the bioswales. The location is extremely beneficial to the plants, stationed directly in front of the school with a better opportunity for native plants to thrive by soaking up more water that is being caught, and by being exposed to more sunlight.

A bioswale is similar to a rain garden in the sense that it is a long depression in the ground made to act like a retention basin that nourishes plants. However, it is able to handle a larger capacity of water. The Pinelands Preservation Alliance received a grant from the William Penn Foundation to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation as a part of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative. Then, Burlington County Soil Conservation District and Pinelands Nursery funded just more than 200 plants for the bioswales.

These projects are a part of the South Jersey Landscape Makeover Program, which is aimed at capturing as much stormwater as possible and turning it into green stormwater infrastructure to reduce pollutants into waterways of the Kirkwood Cohansey Aquifer and to improve water quality. Rutgers University is a partner of the Kirkwood Cohansey Cluster at the Delaware River Watershed Initiative. Rutgers was able to step in to measure the site and to help make plans with AmeriCorps NJ Watershed Ambassador Isabella Castiglioni.

Castiglioni was the brain behind the operations by coordinating the projects and acting as a teacher since the start of both projects in December. She feels this has been a great learning opportunity for the students, and that rain gardens and bioswales are a tool schools can use to teach kids the importance of the quality of water. She has brought in EnviroScape models of the environment to display the effects rainwater has on the environment, and how the students can help improve some of the negative effects. Projects such as the ones Tabernacle Elementary School and Olson Middle School have constructed are ways to keep kids environmentally aware, especially of their own watershed, the Rancocas watershed. Castiglioni states these projects allow “a whole bunch of groups to come together to make their goals work.”

Along with the basins, students have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge on a variety of plants and their care. Since the students have built these rain gardens and bioswales themselves, they also had the opportunity to research native plants they wish to place there. They were provided with worksheets and resources to delve into the various types of plants that would benefit the most from collected rainwater. There are quite a few factors that go into choosing what plants can find a home in these gardens. Those include how much water the plants need, how often they need water and how much sunlight they need.

Both schools’ efforts have the same goal, and the process of achieving that goal is strikingly similar. There is an anticipated planting date this week for the students to put their chosen native plants into the swales, completing the projects.