TJ’s Rain Gardens: Art, Education and the Environment

Falls Church Times Staff

Part 2 in a Series

Don’t know if you’ve heard the tragic news.  Jack (he’s a dog) was washed into a storm drain – “eaten by the drain” if you listen to EZ talk (he’s another dog) – and the Fairfax County storm water management division isn’t quite sure where he’ll surface between Falls Church and the Chesapeake Bay.

Detail from "Happenings in our Habitat" by Jeanette Stewart and Victor Zapata, part of the environmental curriculum at TJ.

Detail from "Happenings in our Habitat" by Jeanette Stewart and Victor Zapata, part of the environmental curriculum at TJ.

Jeanette, EZ, and Rosie are truly concerned and feel they can rescue Jack by tracing his route from Tripps Run to the Potomac then on to the Chesapeake Bay.  The Tripps Run watershed drains two-thirds of Falls Church City, after all, so it sure makes sense to start looking there.

You haven’t heard this story yet?  Then you must not have a fourth grade student at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School where a project to mitigate the impact of storm water runoff through the installation of rain gardens has been transformed into a multi-faceted, interactive educational component of the fourth grade science curriculum.

“OK,” you say.  “Haven’t heard the story, no fourth graders in my life, no interest in why or how science matters to 10-year olds.  Why shouldn’t I, with an elegant slide of my wrist and a decisive click of my mouse, surf a digital wave over to the latest video of funny cats with moustaches dancing to Liberace covers of great old klezmer tunes?”

Fair question – questionable entertainment – but with your indulgence, we need to step back to before these fourth grade students were born.  It is 1997 and the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Act has become law.  Its purpose was to fix the water quality problems that existed at the time and then ensure a continuing water quality that would benefit the future citizens of the Commonwealth.

An authorization is often a hollow, whispered promise without an accompanying appropriation, so the 1997 Act created a Water Quality Improvement Fund (WQIF) to provide grants to local governments, soil and water conservation districts, and individuals to address the prevention, reduction, and control of pollution affecting Virginia water quality.

Here’s one possible bumper sticker for WQIF:  City $ + Virginia $ + Educated Citizens = Goodbye (N+P). Relax; the fourth graders don’t understand this at first glance, either.  N is nitrogen and P is phosphorus.  They are both nutrients required by flora and fauna, yet when they flow unchecked into our waterways, they create environmental problems and are considered pollution.  The principal sources of N and P in our city and Commonwealth: fertilizer and animal waste.

When our TJ fourth graders’ parents and grandparents were grinding through their elementary school science curriculum, pollution was generally believed to enter our waterways primarily through point sources: an industrial discharge pipe, a sewage treatment plant.  Mr. and Mrs. Falls Church City – and all the ships at sea – were given a pass.

Today, our children understand that nonpoint source pollution has a large impact on water quality.  This pollution’s is gradual yet ultimately results in a significant environmental impact and you can see it in action every time it rains.  The streams of water flowing down the sidewalks and gutters, across our driveways, and off all our roofs collect sediments, nutrients, toxic substances, and pathogens, carrying them into our watershed.

“You’re killin’ me,” you say.  “How did we get from dogs in storm drains and TJ to a snore-a-thon on the clean water act?”

Remember the dollar signs on that bumper sticker?  The story of those dogs is an artfully conjured teaching moment that helps tell the story of our watershed, something that would not have been a part of the TJ fourth grade curriculum without those dollars.  Our watershed is important enough that the City of Falls Church Department of Environmental Services petitioned for a WQIF grant, the source of many of those dollars.  The grant, received in 2007 and ending this December, resulted in nine low impact development water quality improvement projects throughout the city, several of which are at TJ.

In August, the Falls Church Times brought you a story on the beginnings of the rain garden projects at TJ.  A link to that story is here, with updated photos of Bill Abel’s cistern art below.  Next in this series: meet Shirley Street and Jeanette Stewart (she’s responsible for Jack and EZ), two of the many brains behind the TJ rain gardens project, and see how Ms. Bragg’s fourth grade class gets their hands dirty planting goldenrod, blazing star, and iron weed.

Detail from TJ Cistern, Bill Abel's Summer

A detail from the Summer cistern, painted by Bill Abel (Photographs by Scott Taylor)

Spring Cistern by Bill Abel

A side of the Spring cistern, painted by Bill Abel

A detail from the Winter cistern, by Bill Abel

A detail from the Winter cistern, painted by Bill Abel

A side of Fall, painted by Bill Abel

A side of Fall, painted by Bill Abel

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By Scott Taylor
November 11, 2009 


6 Responses to “TJ’s Rain Gardens: Art, Education and the Environment”

  1. Jeanette Stewart on November 12th, 2009 9:41 pm

    Wonderfully written article – entertaining and informative. Thanks so much, Jeanette

  2. Stewart Bunn, Washington, DC on November 13th, 2009 10:10 am

    This is an excellent article and program. I appreciate the volunteers working so well with the young folks who will grow up hopefully better stewards of our environment than previous generations because of their efforts.

  3. Mark Melikan, Vienna on November 13th, 2009 12:15 pm

    Great Article…thanks for sharing and for helping!

  4. David N. Alford, Annandale on November 13th, 2009 3:18 pm

    Great job on the article. I can’t stress how important and timely this issue is. Also, Bill Abel did a great job on the cistern, it’s very beautiful.

  5. Pat Sawhney, Annandale on November 13th, 2009 4:35 pm

    Jeanette just starting helping me with my rain issues in a very long and wide swale to reconfigure the stones and rip rap! Much of this work is being done because VDOT refused over the years to do anything to mitigate run off from the road onto my property which then dumps on my neighbor’s, etc.! Was so excited to read this really neat article about her work in Falls Church. She is to be rewarded in any way possible. Now I know how to decorate my rain barrels! Hello to Stewart!

    Pat Sawhney, Annandale

  6. Bill Ackerman, Clifton VA on November 13th, 2009 5:54 pm

    “Good Grief”, as the cartoon Jeanette and the flesh and blood Jeanette would say. I know most of the folks who have commented on this article, in person or by reputation (good, of course). This must be an inside job!

    Great article, entertaining and engaging. What the clever formula doesn’t include is the $$ from individual contributions that are also needed for the “Goodbye (N+P)” result. Jeanette’s not-for-profit is called Lands and Waters. Hint, hint…

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