By C. Julia Nelson
cjnelson@reporternewspapers.net

Long Island Creek and Allen Park have become the focal point for a major community effort that started as a class project on the importance of water.

Rallying around the idea that preserving a local natural resource has to be a priority, more than a half dozen entities have became partners in the project. The overall effort has brought Sandy Springs state-wide recognition for being proactive in monitoring the water at Long Island Creek, in addition to rejuvenating the public space.

Identifying a need

Five years ago, Renee’ Gracon, a former environmental science teacher at Holy Innocents Episcopal School(HIES) initiated a class project to test the water quality at the creek with assistance from Georgia Adopt-A-Stream (Ga. AAS) program, under the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

Through the course of half a decade, HIES students have identified areas of major concern for the creek and a nearby detention pond through water monitoring experiments.

“We were able to detect some uncomfortable changes,” Gracon said. “We watched erosion scour the west bank of the east tributary to the point that during heavy rains the bank was being undermined near the large drainage system there.

“One year we encountered an incredible stench during our monitoring. We had high coliform bacteria levels and high nitrates. That year, we were able to get Fulton County to investigate and they found a leaking septic system.”

Between 2005 and 2006, Gracon said the problems escalated. The culvert that runs under I-285 had been blocked by a fallen tree, illegal dumping of grass clippings and erosion had increased, an excessive amount of coliform bacteria had been detected and the life of the creek, insects known as macro-invertebrates, had all but disappeared.

After Gracon retired last June, Allyson Marbut picked up the ball where Gracon left off and kept the project going. This year’s AP Environmental Science class, under Marbut’s instruction, resumed the project by stripping kudzu from the I-285 enbankment this fall and removing trash that had been thrown there over the summer.

HIES seniors Sam Gonzalez and Virginia West, both 18, feel the work they’ve done has been an eye-opening experience.

“We remove a lot of trash every time we come down,” West said. “If we didn’t do anything about it, it would just get worse. It’s made me more aware of the situation. I live near here and it’s weird to think these things go on so close to where I live.”

Marbut said that while restoring Allen Park overall has become a new addition to the project, monitoring the water monthly remains a high priority. They have continuously tested the creek water for phosphates, nitrates, dissolved oxygen quantity and pH levels.

“The quality of the creek could be better,” Marbut said. “There’s a lot of erosion on the banks, and people still throw their garbage out there.”

Gonzalez said the class has a better understanding now of how outside factors play a role in impacting water quality at the creek.

“We’ve learned what an impact the construction up stream has on (the creek),” he said. “Plus, there was someone dumping lawn clippings in the creek and we saw a decrease in the pH levels.”

Gracon expressed her appreciation and excitement to see the project continue with such great success.

“I am delighted that Allyson Marbut and Janet Silvera, the science department chair, have continued the work at Long Island Creek,” Gracon said. “They have done a fabulous job this year. I was amazed by how much was accomplished this fall.”

Saving Allen Park

Based on their findings in 2005 and 2006, “the kids wanted to know why no one was ‘fixing it,’” Gracon said. “So, we took it on as a project. The kids made a list of the issues that they thought needed fixing (and) they wrote letters.”

Letter recipients including Sandy Springs City Council members, Patty Berkovitz of the Long Island Creek Watershed Association Preservation, Adopt-A-Stream and the Dunwoody Nature Center took the pleas to heart and sprang into action.

Berkovitz, president of the Watershed Association and a volunteer with Trees Sandy Springs, Inc. (TSS), said the association has been partnering with HIES students to assist in the water monitoring process and serves from an advisory standpoint to promote education.

“We wish all the schools were doing something like this,” she said. “It’s good use of the data for the city. Knowing the conditions of the streams are very important to what actions the city will take and helps us identify what projects we may want to find federal funds for.”

Sandy Springs Council members Karen Meinzen McEnerny and Rusty Paul were touched by the sincerity of the kids’ concerns. Their sense of due diligence, not only to the kids, but to preserving a local resource, started wheels spinning at the city level.

“When (the city) first sent Blake Dettweiler to look at the site and he confirmed many of our allegations, the kids were hooked,” Gracon said. “They began to feel they were actually making a contribution to the community.”

The Watershed Association, Dunwoody Nature Center, Earthforce and General Motors of Dunwoody sent volunteers to help the students and Adopt-A-Stream monitor the water quality.

Claire Hayes, director of the Dunwoody Nature Center, said the center works in conjunction with Earth Force to help ‘engage young people as active citizens who improve environment and their communities.’ Often the Earth Force efforts encompass volunteers from the General Motors GREEN program, which allows GM staff to serve as mentors on environmental projects.

“In terms of civic action, it made sense for us to partner with the school on things that could have an impact on the new government,” Hayes said. “We were able to bring resources and support that (Renee’ Gracon) didn’t have. It’s a great opportunity for us to reach older kids.”

John Mitchell, an environmental engineer with GM of Doraville, said because of the strong corporate environmental policy at GM, the opportunity at Allen Park was a “perfect fit” for the “GREEN” project within the company.

At the city level, Nancy Leathers, director of Community Development for Sandy Springs, identified the potential to create a fund for tree preservation by collecting fees and labor from those who violated local stream buffers including shrubberies and trees. Knowing the need at Allen Park thanks to the students’ letters, the city allocated those funds to restore the trees there.

“(Violators) were charged with coming up with a landscape plan to bring the stream bank back up to riparian standards, which is one-third trees, one-third bushes and a third small plants and to provide the installation,” McEnerny said.

This past January, these landscape architects along with HIES students, city arborist Michael Barnett, Councilwoman McEnerny, Berkovitz of the Watershed Association, Nina Cramer of TSS and a handful of other volunteers rolled up their sleeves and began planting and mulching around the riparian along Long Island Creek and the adjacent detention pond.

“I think come springtime it’ll be beautiful with everything blooming and all the mulch they put out,” Marbut said.

Once it incorporated as a 501 (c) 3, TSS joined the project to provide volunteer labor to plant trees and shrubbery throughout the park while the city used funds and labor acquired from landscape architects who violated the Chattahoochee buffer zone.

Cramer, TSS president and founder, is proud to have the non-profit join in the effort to restore the park that earned state-wide recognition.

“Trees Sandy Springs volunteers were pleased to participate in the planting of these trees along the Allen Road Park stream banks and enjoyed their partnership with the city of Sandy Springs and the students of Holy Innocents School,” she said.

Georgia Tech students also chipped in the effort with volunteer support.

Recognizing excellence

In an effort to recognize the collaboration, Gracon and her students nominated the city and TSS to receive the 2007 Georgia Adopt-A-Stream Red Flag Award. The award recognizes volunteer water quality monitoring efforts

“I nominated the city of Sandy Springs, and especially Karen McEnerny, because not only did they respond to the concerns, but they responded in such a big way,” Gracon said. “It is too easy to “talk” about what should be done; it’s altogether different to get involved and do something about it. The City of Sandy Springs took up the issue and made the restoration happen.”

Councilwoman McEnerny presented Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos with the Red Flag Award from Ga. AAS during the March 4 council meeting.

“This is a classic example of many allied people working together,” McEnerny said. “What Holy Innocents has done should really be applauded. This has been a year over year project. Holy Innocents took an interest in the stream before anyone else did – before the city of Sandy Springs was even started.”

As a co-recipient of the award, TSS president Cramer was pleased to see the organization recognized so early in its existence.

“It is especially gratifying for Trees Sandy Springs, Inc to be recognized by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources through their prestigious Red Flag Award,” Cramer said. “This is our first environmental award since we incorporated in September of 2007 and we are immensely proud to have been recognized.”

While Gonzalez is proud the city and TSS received the award, he was sure to recognize the efforts of everyone involved, well before his class came along.

“It’s a good award, but it’s not just us that got the award; it’s an award for a lot of years of work,” Gonzalez said referring to the five years worth of HIES students before him and the contributions of so many partners on the project.

Raising awareness for the future

Although the recent efforts to clean Allen Park, monitor and improve the water quality and plant trees has been much needed, the creek is still in dire need of a stream bank restoration if it is to continue flourishing.

Flooding in previous years as well as construction not far from the creek has caused severe erosion leaving the stream without so much as a bank in several places.

Berkovitz is hopeful to see either a stream bank fund, much like the tree fund, develop at the city level, or impact fees applied to correct the problem.

“Stream violations should go back to stream bank restoration, but they do not currently,” she said. “The bank has collapsed and needs to be restored. The planting, as wonderful as it is, should have happened after a bank restoration.”

Recovering the damages at the creek would cost about $60,000 and would require approval from the Georgia EPD, Berkovitz said.

Both West and Gonzalez are hopeful the community will take ownership of the park like they have.

“We hope people will respect the area,” West said. “A little bit is going to go a long way.”

Gonzalez hopes the efforts to preserve the park and improve the water quality will inspire the public to be more aware of what it takes to maintain a natural resource and at the very least, start using trashcans at the park instead of dumping on the grounds.

“We hope people become more aware, like we have by working on it,” he said.

Gracon, too, has high hopes that the students’ work will inspire others to continue restoring the area.

“I hope that the relationship between the city government, the school, the community, and the individual students is one that lasts a lifetime,” Gracon said.

Berkovitz said Riverwood High School will be taking on a similar project at a different location along the stream, making the overall impact that much larger for the entire community.