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Fund raising for a living water garden in Duluth begins in earnest today.
By Chuck Frederick
Duluth News Tribune

The vision is ambitious.

Concertgoers and others visit Bayfront Festival Park, stroll through a living water garden, learn how it works, and then go home and create miniature versions of their own.

Someday, Duluth would be filled with such gardens. They'd be next to driveways and parking areas and under gutters and downspouts, each one collecting, filtering and cleaning rainwater before it's released down the hillside toward Lake Superior.

Fund raising begins in earnest today as work continues to turn the vision into reality. A supper and an explanation of the project are planned this evening at Hartley Nature Center.

"People in Duluth love Lake Superior. This is a way to positively affect the lake," said Ellen Lindgren, treasurer of Sweetwater Alliance, the nonprofit organized nearly two years ago to create a living water garden at Bayfront Festival Park.

"We'll all be able to learn how we can heal the environment with this project," Lindgren said. "A living water garden can teach us all."

The garden is planned for a half-acre parcel along Railroad Street, just west of the Bayfront stage. A stormwater pipe there would serve as a water source.

The pipe now carries rainwater and snow melt from Interstate 35 and downtown to the Duluth Harbor Basin. Stormwater runoff needs cleaning because it often contains car oil, road salt and other pollutants.

Construction costs for the water garden haven't been determined and won't be until the attraction is designed.

Design work is expected to be paid for with a matching $58,000 grant from the Minnesota Lake Superior Coastal Program. Sweetwater Alliance has collected about $15,000 and has 11 months to raise the rest.

It could be three years before the water garden is built, Sweetwater Alliance Executive Director Jill Jacoby said.

The garden in Duluth will be modeled after a similar project built in Chengda, a city of about 9 million in southwest China, Jacoby said. She spent a month in China in 1995 working on that project. She has dreamed ever since about creating a similar garden in her hometown, Duluth.

The Duluth gardens would work about the same as Chengda's six-acre project:

Polluted water from the Funan River is pumped into the water garden by an old-fashioned water wheel pump house.

The water flows into a large pond where silt and sediment slowly settle to the bottom; they can later be shoveled out and disposed.

The river water, now clearer, passes through a series of man-made wetlands. Walking paths and interpretive signs educate visitors about wetlands plants that break down pollutants.

Finally, the river water splashes and swirls through circular pieces of decorative concrete known as "flow forms." The gurgling action adds oxygen to the water, contributing to its health and purity. The water is then discharged back into the river.

Jacoby hopes the living water garden will drive home the importance of wetlands. She believes Duluth's recent troubles with sewer overflows are due to wetlands being filled for construction in the Miller Hill Mall area.

"Wetlands act as sponges," said Jacoby, who commutes to Ashland two times a week to teach Northland College students about the environment. "When it rains or when snow melts, the wetlands absorb it all. If you destroy wetlands on top of the (Duluth) hillside, the water just runs down to the lake. That's a big part of the problem we're having."

Support for the living water garden has been widespread and even includes Jim Stauber, perhaps the most conservative member of the Duluth City Council.

"This is one of those environmental projects that's extremely good," Stauber said. "It's not in your face, telling you to do this and do that. It's just something that works and that's a good idea."

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