September has arrived and with it grey skies, crisp autumn air (oh, so crisp), and children heading back to school. School this year will look completely different from anything we’ve seen before. Some students will stay home and begin fully-distant learning programs, while others head back to school twice a week on alternating days.
Last spring, before COVID swept the globe, staff from South Washington Watershed District began working with the South Washington County School District 833 to plan an overhaul of the outdoor campuses at Valley Crossing and Crestview Elementary Schools. At Valley Crossing in Woodbury, the school will convert 3.7 acres of turf to oak savanna and work with the watershed district to revitalize 7.15 acres of existing prairie on site. Crestview Elementary in Cottage Grove will restore 10 acres of degraded woodlands on campus and convert several areas of unused turf to prairie as well.
The projects are part of the watershed district’s Campus Greening program and are intended to reduce stormwater runoff, while also restoring and enhancing habitat, and creating unique outdoor learning spaces for the students. A previous project at Lake and Middleton Schools in Woodbury in 2018 converted 15-acres of non-active use turf to prairie and native plantings, in addition to adding 200 trees and two outdoor classrooms to the school properties.
When public land surveyors mapped southern Washington County in 1848, they found few trees beyond the scattered oaks growing in upland savanna and the floodplain forests along the rivers. Where Valley Crossing and Crestview stand today, surveyors describe the land as rolling prairies with “second rate” soils. Oak barrens – a fire-dependent habitat with oaks growing among prairie grasses and forbs – were found nearby.
Following European settlement, the land was nearly entirely cleared for farming. The earliest available air photo from Crestview, taken in 1936, shows the entire site farmed in row crop agriculture. A 1953 air photo from the Valley Crossing site shows most of the site was row cropped as well, with a small lake and farmstead located along what is now Valley Creek Road. The Cottage Grove site remained in agriculture until the early 1960s when both Crestview Elementary and Park High School were built. The Valley Crossing site, meanwhile, was farmed until the 1990s.
Today, both schools have pockets of natural habitat that were created on school land decades ago but have degraded over time due to lack of maintenance and invasive species. This spring, South Washington Watershed District secured a $49,920 Conservation Partners Legacy Grant from the Minnesota DNR to help fund 10-acres of woodland restoration at Crestview. The small prairie at Valley Crossing is in better condition and will be easier to restore to good health. This past spring, the watershed district coordinated a controlled burn on the site, after which restoration specialist Tony Randazzo said that he observed a great flush of native grasses and flowers in the early summer.
The watershed district created its Campus Greening program as an alternative way for schools and other large campuses to meet their stormwater management requirements during construction and redevelopment. So, instead of building a large stormwater retention pond near a parking lot, schools can take a more holistic approach to protecting nearby waterways. These campus greening projects use less groundwater for irrigation, capture more rainwater on-site, create habitat for wildlife, and provide unique hands-on learning opportunities for students.
In addition to the physical transformations planned for the Crestview and Valley Crossing campuses, South Washington Watershed District also hopes to provide environmental education for the students at both schools and engage them in the planting projects. Last spring, special programming with the Carpenter Nature Center had to be canceled when the schools closed, but the watershed district hopes to re-engage the nature center for alternative programming this year. The Campus Greening projects will take two years to complete and will require regular maintenance into the future.