COLUMBIA - It was a busy Saturday morning at Stephens Lake Park. Workers were preparing for the Columbia Heart Walk with balloons, bagpipers and an inflatable castle. Even MU mascot Truman the Tiger was there to support the walk.
Less conspicuous were the 16 volunteers working around the lake. They were there with the Columbia Aquatic Restoration Project and were pulling invasive plant species from the shoreline.
To participate in the Columbia Aquatic Restoration Project and identify other city volunteer opportunities, the public may contact the city's Office of Volunteer Services at 874-7499 or at volunteer@GoColumbiaMo.com
Volunteer Brenda Peculis has been working on projects since last year.
"I do projects like this at home," Peculis said. "It's great to do the same for the city."
Daniel Gibbins, horticulturist for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, is overseeing the restoration project volunteers at Stephens Lake Park. Strong volunteer participation has helped Columbia Aquatic Restoration Project flourish since its inception last year. This success, in turn, has helped to save the city money and foster hands-on community education, Gibbins said.
In 2007, volunteers planted native aquatic plants along the shoreline at Stephens Lake Park.
"What we've found with places like Stephens Lake and other areas is that if you develop a very healthy native aquatic shoreline it helps the water quality immensely," Gibbins said.
The native plants create a natural, functional shoreline. Just one year later, Gibbins said, the plants continue to prevent erosion and provide shade that cools the shore, which helps to deter algae production and improve water quality.
The city uses chemicals to treat the water for algae; however, since the project's inception, the number of treatments needed has decreased.
"Three years ago, I treated Stephens Lake four or five times. Last year, I only had to treat it three times, and this year, I've only had to treat it once," Gibbins said. "And that is largely due to the fact that the shoreline is developing a really healthy diverse shoreline of aquatic plants.
"The reduction in treatments is not only a decrease in cost to the city because the chemicals are expensive, but it's also a big savings in time," Gibbins said. A single chemical treatment can cost more than $750.
"The chemicals we use are very safe," Gibbins said. "But any time we can improve the water quality through natural means, it's always beneficial. We strive to reach a good equilibrium."
Hard work is paying off
The Natural Resources Division of the Parks and Recreation Department recently received a $10,000 grant from Show-Me Clean Streams to renovate the mostly barren shoreline at Twin Lakes Recreation Area. For two Saturdays in May, volunteers planted trees, shrubs and aquatic plants at Twin Lakes.
During those two days, volunteers planted 85 trees, 165 large shrubs and 1,026 aquatic plants.
"It was a huge undertaking," Gibbins said. "I probably had 15 to 20 volunteers each day. That's incredible. For our staff alone to do this, you're talking about a couple weeks of work."
Leigh Britt, volunteer coordinator for the city, said volunteers have logged more than 675 hours of time since the first Columbia Aquatic Restoration Project last year. "People here are very committed to giving their time," Britt said.
The project is saving the city money in other ways, too. Plantings from last year are beginning to naturally seed themselves. These plants can be harvested, divided and replanted elsewhere rather than purchasing bare-root aquatic plants, which can cost up to $800 per project.
"Now we have our own plants to harvest. It really helps our budget," Gibbins said. "And it gets the job done."
Volunteers reap benefits
The projects let citizens take an active part in their park system.
"Anytime you give someone valuable work to do, with visible results, it's a great thing. People are happy out there," Britt said.
"We're really starting to educate the public," Gibbins said. "That's our goal. Not only that they understand what we're doing but that they can take this to their own property."
Volunteers learn how to implement small-scale aquatic restoration projects at their own homes. "And you don't have to do things this elaborate, a small rain garden or a rain barrel off a gutter is great, too," Gibbins said. "And we're teaching our volunteers this."
As Columbia expands, there are increasing problems with watershed maintenance. Being able to maintain storm water on your own property is something that benefits the entire area.
And there is always the satisfaction that comes with a job well done.
"You get wet," volunteer Bill Reniker said. He points to his soggy shoes and socks as he stands on the shoreline at Stephens Lake. "But I enjoy it."