From Rubble to Conservation:
The 3M Flat Branch-Hinkson Creek Wetland Project
Conservation in an urban setting is not always an easy task to accomplish. More often than not, urban conservation involves multiple stakeholders with different ideas of what conservation should entail. This can especially be true when lands owned by a municipality are involved.
The 3M Flat Branch-Hinkson Creek Wetland Project in Columbia, Missouri is an example of just such a project, but it was the stakeholder and partner involvement that made the project a success, clearing many hurdles along the way.
In 2009, the City of Columbia Parks and Recreation Department approached the Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, through the Missouri Private Lands Office, with the idea of a wetland restoration project on the site of a former wastewater treatment facility - Sewer Plant #2.
Sewer Plant #2, in operation from 1956 until 1983, was built adjacent to both Flat Branch and Hinkson Creeks, two of Columbia’s larger watersheds and was located along the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas railway, now the MKT Nature Trail used extensively by Columbia’s citizens. The concept of restoring a wetland complex and, better yet, the potential for wetland outreach and education had its appealing qualities.
Staff of the Missouri Private Lands Office was not initially optimistic regarding the feasibility of the City’s project idea. The site had been extremely altered from its original floodplain habitat. In addition to having several tons of fill material added to the site over the years, Sewer Plant #2 still had much of its former infrastructure remaining. The truth of the matter was simply that restoration of the site to its former wetland habitat was thought to be too costly of a task to undertake.
Talk of wetland restoration at Sewer Plant #2 began again just one year later, but this time there was more to discuss than just wetland restoration. Storm water runoff had become a hot topic in Columbia with recent rainfalls swelling Hinkson Creek out of its banks, flooding many low-lying areas including the MKT Trail. The City was under increasing pressure, not only from local citizens concerned about flooding, but also from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to address storm water runoff in the Hinkson Creek watershed.
With this increased awareness of watershed issues, there came a renewed interest in wetland restoration at Sewer Plant #2. Could the project alleviate excessive storm water runoff and simultaneously restore wetland habitat? Costs associated with the project still remained an issue; however, with the increased awareness also came new partnerships. One of the those partners included the 3M Corporation who awarded the City a $40,000 grant for urban ecological restoration, just the financial start the project needed to get it off the ground.
With 3M’s initial start-up funding in place, the City went to work removing Sewer Plant #2’s remaining infrastructure. First on the list was an abandoned pump house that looked more like the backdrop of an apocalyptic movie scene than a municipal facilities building. Bars had been welded on to broken windows for public safety and walls were covered with graffiti. Structural engineers inspected the building from a demolition perspective and quickly informed project planners the structure would be extremely expensive to remove.
At first glance, the pump house looked like a relatively small building, but in reality it was several stories of thick concrete, most of which was buried deep below the surface. Again, the project was facing a cost prohibitive roadblock based on the site’s history as a wastewater treatment facility. During initial inspections however, the pump house was found to still have water-holding capabilities despite being inactive for nearly 30 years. Thoughts of demolition quickly turned into thoughts of renovation. The lower floors of the pump house were retrofitted to collect and hold storm water runoff, providing more than 300,000 gallons of gray water storage and a secondary water source for wetland management. Walls were removed from the above ground first floor and the remaining open space converted into a viewing platform overlooking the wetland. Literally topping things off, the Missouri Department of Conservation provided funding for a native green roof adding to the aesthetics of the newly renovated pump house.
The pump house wasn't the only infrastructure challenge for project planners related to Sewer Plant #2’s past history. As the City began building wetland pools it encountered more buried infrastructure than what was indicated in the original site plans. Yet again, the City turned a problem into a solution, recycling an estimated 20,000 pounds of steel removed from the site that generated nearly $3,900 in additional funding for the project.
Even with successful renovation and removal of infrastructure, there was still a problem beneath the ground of Sewer Plant #2 that wasn't as obvious. Former waste water treatment facilities often have heavy metals hidden within the soils which can pose a threat to wildlife and possibly present health concerns for people. With this in mind, the City and the Missouri Private Lands office enlisted the aid of contaminant specialists from the Columbia Ecological Services Field Office to conduct a site survey for potential hazards. As was suspected, soils from Sewer Plant #2’s former settling ponds contained elevated levels of metals that exceeded thresholds of concern for wildlife. With recommendations from Field Office staff and approval by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the City was able to develop a hazard remediation plan involving the removal and encapsulation of contaminated soils. Further testing by Field Office staff following remediation efforts found the site to be free of its original heavy metal hazards, making the wetland project and downstream watershed safe for both wildlife and people.
Actual wetland design and restoration efforts seemed quite simple after working through the initial challenges left behind by Sewer Plant #2. The Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetland Emphasis Team volunteered their time and resources to conduct a topographic survey of the site. From this survey, the City Public Works Department successfully developed a design capable of sequestering storm water runoff from 142 acres of urban watershed while simultaneously providing wetland habitat in the Flat Branch and Hinkson Creek floodplains. Columbia Parks and Recreation staff coordinated every aspect of the project, which included obtaining a $25,000 National Fish and Wildlife Foundation - Five Star Restoration Grant that provided funding for wetland pool construction, erosion control and native plantings.
The Missouri Private Lands Office provided $9,000 in cost share through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program for the purchase of new pipe and water control structures to manage the newly restored wetlands. A noteworthy feature of pipe utilized by the City for the wetland project was that it was made from 40% recycled material. Furthermore, Forest ReLeaf of Missouri donated 1,000 native trees and shrubs to the project while Columbia Aquatic Restoration Project volunteers and TreeKeepers volunteers donated their Saturdays to planting the trees and shrubs provided by Forest ReLeaf.
The complete list of stakeholders and partners ultimately included:
- 3M Corporation
- Columbia Parks and Recreation
- Columbia Public Works
- Boone County Public Works
- Columbia Water and Light
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- Missouri Department of Conservation
- Natural Resources Conservation Service
- Missouri Department of Natural Resources
- National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
- Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation
- Columbia Audubon Society
- Forest ReLeaf of Missouri
- Missouri River Relief
- National Association of Counties Research Foundation
- Missouri Native Plant Society
- Recreational Trail Program
- Columbia Aquatic Restoration Project volunteers
- TreeKeepers volunteers
Without the successful collaboration of these stakeholders and partners to overcome the challenges presented by Sewer Plant #2, the 20-acre site would not have become what is proudly known today as the "3M Flat Branch-Hinkson Creek Wetlands."
-- Chris Woodson
Missouri Private Lands Office