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A late winter stroll reveals several golf balls peeking out of the upturned soil along Nine Springs Creek. The creek passes through a popular housing development area in Fitchburg south of Madison and adjoins a golf course where youngsters have been known to hide in the woods and take freshly driven golf balls as pranks.
Once littered and overgrown with buckthorn and honeysuckle, this area is seeing new life as a recreational corridor. The woods have been teased back and area water quality here is benefiting from an urban nonpoint source grant.
From a construction access point on Longford Terrace, the project runs along a part of the Capital City Trail. A singing roofer works nearby accompanied by the steady hum of heavy construction equipment.
Visitors pass a detention pond where storm water is collected. When surveying this area, Lois Endres, a City of Fitchburg technician and inspector, says they found owls inhabited the woods. Others reported seeing a red fox and turkeys.
While polluted runoff has historically been considered a rural woe, urban sprawl is now being recognized as a major contributor. Due to high erosion rates and the efficiency of ditches and storm sewers, construction sites "deliver" sediment to lakes and rivers in greater quantities and more quickly than any land use in Wisconsin. For an average construction site, 30 tons of sediment per acre can wash off into nearby waterways.
Construction site erosion control ordinances and practices are designed to help decrease the amount of sediment entering waterways. Many of the lessons for managing polluted runoff from the rural environment also will work in urban areas. Contractors, developers and cities must now join their rural neighbors in planning how to reduce sediment and other pollutants from moving off their land. Construction sites of five acres or more must take steps to maintain 80 percent of sediment on their site that otherwise would erode into lakes and streams. This requirement also applies to road construction projects.
Starting March, 2003 these rules also applied to construction sites greater than one acre. Statewide about 250 municipalities will be required to devise plans to reduce storm water pollution from existing development areas by 20 percent by 2008 and by 40 percent by 2013.
"The object is to reduce the amount of pollution that enters storm sewers and winds up in our lakes and rivers," says Eric Rortvedt, DNR storm water program coordinator.
"Cities will take the regulations to the streets when it comes to using street sweeping and installing treatment devices or wet detention ponds," he says. "Storm water is getting more attention and that attention is shifting to the local level."
Mike Rupiper, an environmental engineer with the City of Fitchburg, says the city is working to reduce streambank erosion by protecting the bank, shaving the banks and removing exotic species and installing plants and coconut fiber mats to stabilize the bank and absorb wave action – engineers call this bioengineering.
Nearly half of the Nine Springs Creek project – about 4,000 feet on the trail – is funded through a grant and the rest is financed through storm water utility fees. Rupiper estimates the total Nine Springs Creek project at $225,000. The nearby Dunn's Marsh streambank stabilization project costs about $102,000.
"Before we started the project, the area was impenetrable because of heavy vegetation and the streambanks were eroding," recalls Bruce Woods, a project landscape architect for Foth & Van Dyke. "Instead of doing the entire length of the creek, we only did repairs where necessary. Some trees were saved but many were removed to open the canopy and allow some light in."
Trees and brush were removed, chipped and made available for public use. A "check dam" of small rocks was built about every 500 feet to trap any sediment created by the project. This spring, the area will be seeded with native grasses and sedges. Planting prairie grasses upstream of Dunn's Marsh will help increase infiltration.
Woods says he is getting more work in bioengineering and keeps the landscape more natural in construction projects. These projects can be more economical in the long run.
Mary Anne Lowndes, a DNR engineer who was actively involved in the polluted runoff rules redesign, calls Fitchburg a "very good example of a municipality taking responsibility for good environmental stewardship."
"People are already asking me when we are going to put the picnic tables in," Endres says.
Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.