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Eco-friendly islands populate Columbia lakes

WetlandsEnergy Saving

If you've taken a walk around some of Columbia's lakes and ponds recently, you may be wondering what those small islands resembling gardens floating in the water are.

You also may be wondering how they got there and what do they do?

According to Columbia Association's Assistant Director of Open Space Sean Harbaugh, the "floating wetlands," as they are called, are CA's latest attempt to increase the sustainability of its lakes and ponds.

"When something comes along that's a win-win, we do it," Harbaugh said of the wetlands, which were initially introduced at Jackson Pond in Long Reach as a pilot program in 2012.

"It helps benefit our parks and operation, and it ties nicely into our sustainably and watershed practices."

According to Harbaugh, the floating wetlands, which are now deployed at Lake Elkhorn, Wilde Lake and Jackson Pond, provide three benefits. They improve water quality, provide a structure for the environment's fish habitats and add aesthetic value to the area.

Harbaugh said the wetlands are made up of a series of 4x4 buoyant mats constructed from a mixture of recycled materials. The mats are then filled with soil and plants, which has its roots under the water, and placed into the lakes. As the plants grow, their roots consume excess nutrients that have saturated the lake, creating a healthier eco-system, according to Harbaugh.

Harbaugh said the project is not extremely labor intensive, although CA did encounter an issue with local water fowl, who seem to be fans of the islands.

"One of the issues was keeping the geese from climbing up on top," Harbaugh said. "We put a small little barrier up around it [to keep them] from eating the plant material."

Another fan of the wetlands is CA Board member Michael Cornell, who represents River Hill and is a staunch advocate for sustainability.

"This operates at so many different levels," Cornell said. "It's environmentally friendly, they look nice, they provide a bio-habitat for small fish and birds, and they keep the lakes looking and smelling nicer."

Harbaugh said there are approximately 50 4x4 floating mats spread out between the three locations. The cost is approximately $200 per 4x4 mat, including plant material, Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh said CA plans to put in more floating wetlands in the spring of 2014, so long as the current ones hold up during the winter.

According to Cornell, the floating wetlands have benefits beyond the lakes they occupy.

"I don't see a downside to this type of project," Cornell said. "It's good for the community, good for the environment. It's another example of the type of things we could be doing more of."

In addition to the floating wetlands, CA has employed other initiatives aimed at making Columbia's open space, including its lakes, better for the environment. Earlier this year, CA completed dredging of Lake Elkhorn, which was the last lake to undergo the process that began with the dredging of Lake Kittamaqundi in 2010.

According to Dennis Mattey, CA's director of construction, the dredging is done "to maintain the environmental and aesthetic value of the lakes."

CA also has a lake sediment management plan, a rain garden program, energy efficiency and numerous other "green" measures for CA facilities and operations, and the reforesting of portions of CA property as part of CA's watershed management plan.

"CA has a long history of environmental stewardship. We view all aspects of our operations as opportunities to become more sustainable, reducing energy consumption, minimizing pollution and protecting our natural resources," said CA President Phil Nelson in a statement. "We are also working to actively engage the community on these issues so that Columbia, as a whole, becomes more sustainable."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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