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Biology student organization undertaking wetland restoration project near campus

Restoration of a degraded wetland area along a portion of the Lafayette River inlet near the campus will begin Saturday, June 5, thanks to the efforts of Old Dominion University's Biology Graduate Student Organization (BGSO).

Sixty feet of shoreline along the northeast side of Colley Bay - behind Larchmont Elementary School - will get a new border, created with coconut fiber coir logs, backfilled with sand and planted with about 700 Spartina alterniflora plants, a perennial deciduous grass often found in intertidal wetlands.

BGSO, which sponsors local wetlands cleanups each semester, got the ball rolling on the Larchmont Elementary Wetland Restoration project last December when it asked the Highland Park Civic League for recommendations. That initial contact evolved into a collaborative effort, also involving the city of Norfolk, Larchmont Elementary, the Lafayette River Wetlands Partnership and the Elizabeth River Project.

In fact, the Highland Park Civic League will be working on an identical restoration effort on the other side of Colley Bay, at 51st Street and Killam Avenue, at the same time the BGSO undertakes its project.

"We ended up meeting with Mike O'Hearn of the civic league, Betty Baucom, a teacher at Larchmont Elementary, and Kevin DuBois, a scientist with the city of Norfolk. They pitched this idea to us. They had a wetland designated for restoration, and they were giving us the opportunity to design it," said Matt Semcheski, BGSO wetland preservation officer and a doctoral student in ecological sciences at ODU (pictured in blue shirt).

"We took them up on the offer and have been working tirelessly since then, taking tide and elevation measurements, writing permit applications and planning out the design of the wetland itself. We worked closely with a number of people, without whom this would never have been possible. John Stewart of the Lafayette River Wetlands Partnership has probably done the most legwork on this project."

The BGSO project covers a total area of about 900 square feet. Long-term plans call for establishing a forested buffer inland.

"At our site, there is no vegetation, and a steep, eroding bank littered with debris, including concrete and asphalt - a non-natural shoreline," Semcheski said. "This is bad for the environment for a number of reasons, the two biggest being erosion and runoff. No vegetation means no roots holding the sediment in place.

"With every tidal cycle or storm, more of the existing shoreline is washed away. Runoff is a major player in water quality issues. With no vegetation to absorb and cycle the nutrients in storm-water runoff, these nutrients go directly into the water, which can trigger algae blooms."

The project, the biggest to date undertaken by the 70-member student organization, will involve about a dozen students. BGSO's last volunteer effort, a cleanup of the Birdsong Memorial Wetland behind Larchmont Library, occurred in late April.

Stewart first met Semcheski and other members of the BGSO at a wetland cleanup the students helped out with in the Highland Park neighborhood. He came away impressed by their volunteerism and dedication to the task at hand. He has been further impressed by the group's work on the Colley Bay project.

"The members of the Biology Graduate Students Organization worked without fanfare in evaluating the proposed restoration site, surveying its extent and elevations, and then creating a site plan that described the effort. They exhibited a willing enthusiasm, perseverance in the face of changing requirements and an acute attention to detail," Stewart said.

"They participated in collaborative problem-solving meetings with members of the community and proved themselves to be articulate communicators and critical thinkers. It is accurate to say that there would be no wetland restoration at the school if it were not for the work of the ODU Biology Graduate Students Organization.

"All of us in the Lafayette Wetlands Partnership have been impressed by the manner in which Matt and Todd (Egerton) have led the planning for the restoration. We look forward to working with the members of the BGSO on more projects in the future."

For the students' Colley Bay project, the city of Norfolk has provided up to $4,000 for the purchase of materials, Semcheski said. On June 5, the BGSO will join members of the Highland Park Civic League in placing the logs and sand along the shoreline.

Then, on the following Saturday, June 12, students from Larchmont Elementary will have an opportunity for some hands-on learning when they join in the effort, helping with the planting.

"This started as a wetland cleanup idea, and the wetland restoration was pitched to us by the city and the civic league," Semcheski said. "BGSO has never done anything of this magnitude. We are excited to be involved in this community-wide effort."

The two restoration projects - the one headed by BGSO and the other by the civic league across the water - represent what Semcheski hopes will be a more encompassing venture.

"These two projects only restore a small portion of Colley Bay," he said. "The city has a grant application in for money to restore the entire shoreline, so these two projects are designed to rally the community and get citizens and students excited about the idea."

This article was posted on: June 2, 2010

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