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Can Modified Rain Gardens Grow Clean Water Consensus?

Going into Florida’s 2014 legislative session, water issues seemed to take center stage. But, the political will to solve problems with the state’s degrading springs, wetlands and aquifers dried up before session’s end. Now, one Tallahassee scientist is hoping to bridge the political divide with a free market solution.

At the outset of the 2014 Florida legislative session, political will to try and solve the state’s most pressing water issues seemed to flow freely. Lawmakers on both sides of the political divide submitted measures to increase funding for a swath of local water projects but, perhaps the most expansive proposal came from State Senator David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs). He spearheaded a bipartisan effort to pass a far reaching bill that would’ve increased regulation of some of the state’s more sickly springs, streams, rivers and aquifers. Senators eventually passed Simmons’ measure without a single no vote but, strong opposition from agriculture interests, who said the new rules would burden local ag businesses, effectively killed the bill in the House.

A failure to reconcile the agriculture industry’s interests with environmental sustainability is nothing new and it most certainly isn’t unique to the Sunshine State. But, one Florida A&M University scientist doesn’t think a solution to the problem necessarily needs to come from the capitol…

Jennifer Cherrier’s been working with water for a couple of decades now, originally from Connecticut, she moved to teach at FAMU, and while there she began working on a project focusing on rain gardens – shallow depressions embedded with deep rooted native plants for water collection.

“They came to me in 2006 at FAMU and wanted us to install the first demonstration rain garden in Tallahassee. So, the first demonstration rain garden that was installed in Tallahassee is on FAMU’s campus,” Cherrier said.

A couple years later, she reviewed a very interesting dissertation submitted by one of her students – an idea to update the traditional rain garden. The plan was to leverage a rain garden’s water collection power to create a system that not only stored rain water and runoff, but filtered it and made it available for reuse. Cherrier wanted to begin researching the plan immediately and eventually she found a farm willing to let her build a test site – Clinton Nursery in Havana, Florida. Sheila Jmeiner has been working at the more than 300 acre Havana nursery for years.

“You should see this place during when all the birds migrate. I mean, there is such an array of herons, egrets, storks…” Jmeiner said.

She toured around the grounds along narrow dirt roads in a large, four-door pickup truck. Dotting the landscape were retention ponds, some massive, some reminiscent of puddles. She stopped at the far-right corner of the property, where three small planted depressions sat downhill from a large row of plants, punctuating them. Staring at her pet project, Jennifer Cherrier describes how research from this prototype is coming up with some very interesting results.

“Well, 50 percent, 50 to 60 percent of the nitrates were removed and about 64 percent of the phosphates were removed,” Cherrier said walking around the garden’s perimeter.  “Otherwise the whole 100 percent nitrate and the whole 100 percent phosphate would go off the property and into this adjacent forest.”

What’s more? Cherrier pointed out that the project isn’t only effective, but is also cheaper than more traditional ways for farmers to capture their runoff and rainwater – 75 percent cheaper. And she says those savings are even larger once combined with the added benefit of reusing water, using less land for retention ponds and a filtration system that’s far healthier for the environment.  Clinton Nursery farmer Sheila Jmeiner believes that makes the project a win/win for everyone – agricultural and environmental advocates alike.

“The science, the art and the skill all come together as one and its reflected in the quality of the pants, you know? We’re trying to keep the business going. You know it’s very tough for any business right now,” Jmeiner acknowledged.

Although Jmeiner said more established agriculture operations like Clinton Nursery can’t rely solely on Cherrier’s now commercialized water system, many new farms could and even older ones could always use the method to supplement their existing operations. Meanwhile, Cherrier is working on making her system more scalable and is installing versions of it around the country, including New York City. Still, as much as she’s happy about what her project might mean for environmental science, Cherrier’s more excited about the possibility of two disparate political rivers meeting in the middle to make a difference in Florida’s environment.