By C. Julia Nelson

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

Rallying around the preservation of a local natural resource, more than a half dozen entities have partnered on the project. The 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, 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 (detected) 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, the problems escalated. A fallen tree blocked the culvert that runs under I-285, illegal dumping of grass clippings and erosion increased, an excessive amount of coliform bacteria had been detected and the life of the creek, insects – or 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.”

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.”

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 landscape architects who violated local stream buffers.

“(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. 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 for the 2007 Georgia Adopt-A-Stream Red Flag Award, which recognizes volunteer water quality monitoring efforts.

“I nominated Sandy Springs, and 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 do something about it.”

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

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 2007; we are immensely proud to have been recognized.”