Swales, Anyone?

Melissa Bailey PhotoA new turf field might be good for the Hillhouse football team. Its new bleachers might be good for parents and fans. But will it be bad for the hooded mergansers, mallard ducks, and great blue herons who live nearby?

Nan Bartow, head of the Friends of Beaver Pond Park is raising those questions as plans for the renovation of Hillhouse’s Bowen Field move forward.

She’s concerned that runoff from the planned synthetic field may carry heated and possibly polluted water into the nearby Beaver Pond, which could harm the fish, turtles, and birds that live there.

Bartow showed up this month at the regular meeting of the City Plan Commission, where commissioners voted to approve a proposed appropriating ordinance to secure the money for the Bowen Field redo. The city plans to borrow $3.6 million to pay for the makeover. The state would contribute $8 million.

The Board of Aldermen is yet to vote on the plan, which includes the construction of new bleachers, gates, concession stands, and locker rooms. It is expected to approve the plan.

Bartow did not testify before the City Plan Commission. The matter was not up for a public hearing. But commissioners promised to hold a public hearing if and when the proposal comes up for site plan review.

“I think it’s horrifying that they were not planning to have a public hearing, because the community really doesn’t know anything” about the possible environmental dangers, said Bartow. She said she doesn’t want to come across as a “spoilsport” by raising questions about the athletic field.

At the City Plan Commission meeting, Bartow did submit records of her correspondence with staff at The SLAM Collaborative, Inc., the firm that’s designing the Bowen Field improvements. In her letters, Bartow requests that SLAM include two “swales” to drain runoff from the field while protecting the pond from heated water and chemicals. She also asked what type of sythetic turf would be used and what chemicals it might release.

“I think you will all agree that we must protect the water of Beaver Pond as much as possible,” Bartow wrote. “If we don’t, we could lose the birds, the waterfowl, the turtles, the fish, and the life of the pond in general.”

Bartow said SLAM assured her that the company will consider her concerns and suggestions. SLAM didn’t tell her what kind of turf its planning to install, she said. Bartow said that even with $11.6 million, there doesn’t seem to be enough money to do any landscaping.

SLAM couldn’t be reached for comment.

Bartow said she borrowed the swale idea from Chris Ozyck, a landscape designer and associate director of the tree-planting Urban Resources Initiative.

Ozyck explained just what a swale is. “When people don’t like them, they call them ditches,” Ozyck said. It’s essentially a depressed area to capture water. After a storm, swales fill with water that dissipates within 24 to 48 hours, Ozyck said. He envisions two swales by Bowen Field with grass at the edges and native plants in the middle, creating small wetland areas that would collect runoff rainwater from the field.

Swales offer a number of advantages over traditional field drainage, Ozyck said. Turf fields often have a simple pipe that collects stormwater runoff. The water in this case might be piped directly to the pond. That can be problematic in the summertime, when turf fields tend to become quite hot, Ozyck said.

“When you get rain, the water that comes off is very hot,” he said. If hot water, which has less oxygen, were dumped directly into Beaver Pond, it could harm the fish and turtles living there.

Swales, on the other hand, offer a chance to lower the water temperature and allow for groundwater infiltration, Ozyck said. “It cools down the water and allows sediment to fall out.”

Swale construction would cost about as much as laying drainage pipe to the pond, Ozyck said.

Ozyck said swales would create an opportunity for Hillhouse high students to learn about “green engineering” and wetlands in an “outdoor classroom.”

“Stormwater management is a growing field when you think about what’s happening about climate change and adapting to what’s happening in the environment and in the world,” Ozyck said.

Swales could also offer an aesthetic advantage. It’s nice to look out at nature when you’re sitting in the stadium, Ozyck said. Putting in a cattail-filled area leading toward Beaver Pond, with manicured lawns on either side, could create “a visual cue” leading the gaze to the water, Ozyck said.

“It could be quite attractive,” he said. “With a little bit of creativity, it could be a home run.” Or a touchdown.

Ozyck said a lot of people are concerned about the chemicals that can be released from a synthetic field. Some are built on a base of shredded tires. “Until you know what they’re specifying to use as a material beneath, you can’t really say whether it’s good or bad,” he said. “There will probably be some residue washing off these fields that will go into the water.”

“It’s a great project,” Ozyck said of the Bowen Field renovations. “No one wants to kill it or slow it down.” The question is “How can we make this nicer for people attending it and the students? ... It’s just a simple conversation.”

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posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on December 28, 2012  2:27pm

Way to go, Nan!  Thanks on behalf of all of us for tracking this stuff and offering workable solutions.

posted by: Brian Tang on December 28, 2012  2:33pm

The swales or other mitigation measures sound reasonable to me. What doesn’t sound reasonable to me would be draining polluted or heated runoff directly into a sensitive water body. That would be a crazy and antiquated way of doing it.