Not far away, a huge tiger swallowtail butterfly hovered overhead as another group of students learned about plants and animals that thrive near creeks. And on tables along Little Sugar Creek, tiny larvae wiggled in white pans as wide-eyed kids inspected the aquatic life that sustains the food chain.
On July 30, Storm Water Services’ Hidden Valley Ecological Garden was an exciting outdoor classroom for 50 students from a six-week Digital and Media Literacy summer camp at Irwin Academy sponsored by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the Arts & Science Council.
In 2000, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services began a $4.4 million effort to transform the floodplain around the headwaters of Little Sugar Creek. Twenty homes that repeatedly flooded were bought and torn down. The original, curving path of the stream was restored. In the wide floodplain, wetlands, wet ponds and stream buffers were constructed to soak up pollutants and improve water quality. Nature trails and educational signs were added. State and federal grants paid 69% of the total cost, with County Storm Water Services fees paying the remaining $1.3 million.
Ten years after completion, the results are impressive. Monitoring data shows the creek water is cleaner. Populations of many types of fish, turtles and salamanders are increasing. And as the summer campers learned firsthand on July 30, the Hidden Valley Ecological Garden is a great outdoor classroom.
Storm Water Services employees led the students on a nature walk, showing where the houses once stood. They guided the kids looking at bugs and other tiny aquatic life that indicate healthy streams. Storm Water Services also provided the expertise as students built a floating wetland which will help remove some pollutants from the wet pond.
The project at Hidden Valley shows long-range benefits go beyond the County’s initial investments in buyouts and floodplain restoration. Area students have a great place to learn about helping the environment. Government agencies and nonprofits collaborate to provide funding and know-how for educational field trips, and the entire community benefits.