An Island Shaped Like a School Emblem Sends a Powerful Message of Environmental Stewardship

Broken Arrow city and school district partner to create what is believed to be Oklahoma’s largest floating wetland.

An Island Shaped Like a School Emblem Sends a Powerful Message of Environmental Stewardship

The floating wetland was launched with the help of the city staff in May 2018.

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The City of Broken Arrow partnered with high school students to build a floating wetland in the shape of the school district’s logo, while helping to build school spirit.

The city owned a detention pond across the street from the high school and wanted to design a second phase to the pond for teaching students and the public about water quality, floodplain protection and environmental stewardship. The pond drains into the Adams Creek which flows into the Verdigris River, the source of residents’ drinking water.

Broken Arrow, near Tulsa and the fourth-largest city in Oklahoma, has a population of 113,000 spread over 61 square miles. Its Verdigris River Water Treatment Plant produces 30 mgd.

School connection

Kenny Schwab, assistant city manager of operations, knew that approaching the high school and getting buy-in for the project would help make it a success and at the same time educate students on water quality.

He told the high school staff, “Let’s work together and build an outdoor classroom.” The school invited him to a meeting with its educators. Schwab walked in with an empty sheet of paper and said, “Let’s get some ideas on what you would like to do. And dream big!”

From that meeting, 15 great ideas came up, one of which was the floating wetland in the 400-foot-by-500-foot pond. Everyone felt the students and the city would benefit, and that students could be engaged as part of their environmental science studies.

This “Together Project” includes the wetland built in 2018 and a rain garden on the slope of the detention pond, created in 2019. “We decided to also get the art students involved,” says Schwab. “We created a litter prevention contest and challenged them to create a logo and signage. The winner got a cash prize, and we used the logo on our signage around the pond.”

Creating the wetland

Donna Gradel, environmental sciences teacher for the Broken Arrow high school, was instrumental in getting the students on board. She invited city representatives to talk to her students about the partnership and generate excitement about the wetland project.

The city team presented to the students on World Wetlands Day and showed them the engineering drawings. The students especially loved the idea of using the district’s logo for the shape. They enjoyed learning about the purpose of a wetland and how they could help put it together.

Schwab did research to see if other schools had partnered with cities to create such projects and could find no examples. He presented the project to the city council, which gave its support. The funds to build the wetland unit came from a city bond. Schwab also solicited contributions from businesses, who donated materials for the structure. The students provided substantial input on the design and materials.

The floating wetland took about four days to build. The students and engineers from the city constructed the unit on a weekend, during their lunch hours and after school. All told, about 25 students and city workers helped put the floating structure together. The completed wetland measures 40 by 80 feet.

Awards and accolades

The Together Project floating wetland received a Water Environment Federation Public Communication and Outreach Program Award. It also received the Ronald D. Flanagan Gold Project Award from the Oklahoma Floodplain Managers Association.

The partnership and project were well received by the residents. Schwab observes, “The backing of the community surprised me the most. We presented at the homeowners association and at other public meetings.

“Not only did they like the partnering with the school district, they thought the whole project was great and wanted us going forward to include a boardwalk, trails and overlooks. They asked us to tie everything together with a wetland preserve the city also owns near the pond.”

Schwab said that the students were committed to the project from day one. They spent many hours putting it together and checking on it. No maintenance on the wetland has been needed. The wetland plants die back in winter; the large rooted structure below stays intact, and in spring the plants grow back. The students enjoy observing the unit in all seasons.

As a result of this project, several students have gone on to pursue engineering and environmental engineering studies in college. A couple of kids also won scholarships and presented at a conference on the project.

According to T.J. Gerlach, communications coordinator for the city, “Last spring we had a tornado in the area. Two concerned students grabbed a kayak to check on the floating wetland and, lo and behold, it survived and was just fine.”   


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