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Educational signs

Harris County WCID 132's Water Conservation and Demonstration Center

Location:
Spring, Texas

Size & Type of Project:
0.65 acres, Open space - Garden / Arboretum

Certification Level:
One Star

Site Context:
Suburban

Former Land Use:
Greyfield

Terrestrial Biome:
Temperate Broadleaf & Mixed Forests

Budget:
$252,800

Project Overview

Harris County Water Conservation and Improvement District (WCID) 132's Water Conservation and Demonstration Center showcases efficient, sustainable water techniques and practices, which are aimed at providing solutions applicable to suburban landscapes whose owners desire to conserve water while sustaining beautiful plant materials.
 
The Center's focus - water conservation in the landscape - is shared through presentations, site features, and plants. Presentations on water saving and sustainable practices include watering established plants with captured rainwater and air conditioner condensate, mulching to conserve moisture, working with the soil's capacity to hold water, eliminating invasive species, and composting. Site features and materials, approximately 20 found in each of the 16 demonstration areas, include rain barrels, rain gardens, rain chains, and reused and recycled materials. Approximately 75 species of native plants and 15 herbs and vegetables are visible depending on the season.

Regional Context

WCID 132's Water Conservation and Demonstration Center is located in the Texas coastal plains ecoregion, in a suburban neighborhood northwest of Houston. The average annual precipitation is approximately 51.1 inches, and the climate is sub-tropical, rarely dropping below freezing. Soils are sand and clay of the Pleistocene series with elevations between 116-120 feet above sea level.
 
The site is part of the Cypress Creek watershed and is within 5-6 blocks of the creek.

Salvaged materials used for seating and walkways

SITES Features and Practices

Salvaged materials and plants: An elevated walkway was custom designed for the site in order to use salvaged cedar fence picket's collected from the area. The pickets were also used to created chairs and benches for seating areas, and bird houses. Installed native plants were partially salvaged from locations where they were to be destroyed by developers.
 
Stormwater management:  Raingardens, vegetative swales, and rock filter dams alleviate stormwater flow and are visable throughout the center. The size of each of these structures vary from large to small to demonstrate how they can accomodate different sizes of suburban yards. Additionally, an existing low area that was previously undesirable, was enlarged slightly and turned into a bog that can hold stormwater for a few days, allowing it to infiltrate and providing habitat for water loving plants, birds, and butterflies. These structures run from the north end of the site to the south end of the property using a treatment train concept, where the water is slowly and gradually conveyed to Cypress Creek.
 
Integrated design team challenge: The most innovative strategy used at the Center evolved from the need to find materials that could be designed into a permeable walkway. Crushed granite, left at the site from a prior garden, was tested for permeability and found to be impenetrable due to the granite particles tightly bonding to the heavy clay soils. A challenge was presented to all of the the integrated design team, as well as volunteers, to identify materials commonly sent to the landfill that might be reused in a walkway design. Reused cedar pickets constructed into an elevated walkway was the resulting solution.
 
Other features and practices: The project also uses native plant materials in a suburban yard setting to demonstrate the aesthetic qualities of singular species groupings, or groupings of native plant communities. Leftover cedar pickets from the walkway were ground and used as mulch for walkways. Organic debris collected from neighbors was used to make compost that was then used on plantings.

Process

Processes evolved out of the passion, needs, and existing commitments of the individuals involved on the integrated design team, as well as the changing complexity of the tasks being considered. The Board of Directors of the water district, wanted a “hands-on” process. They wanted to meet and learn from experts, then get their hands in the dirt to create the end product.
 
Originally, decisions were made at meetings by the board members, experts, community volunteers, and independent contractors, and would then be implemented by various groups meeting at the site at different times. This linear flow worked for a short period of time but wasn’t able to be maintained long-term due to work conflicts, family needs, and illnesses.
 
The integrated design team then became two groups. At the larger group level, all of the participants were still welcome to attend all meetings on site, but they were not required to do so. A smaller steering group consisting of the Board of Directors (the board is subject to the open meeting requirements of the state of Texas) organized meeting topics that were set according to what experts were scheduled to come and speak. Neighborhood participants were able to drop by the center or send e-mails regarding specific topics. The process was more fluid and individuals‘ interests and commitment were more rewarding and fulfilling. The outcome was an enthusiastic, dedicated group of people who committed extraordinary energy toward building this sustainable site.
 
No zoning or code restrictions are known to exist in Spring, however the site is surrounded and intersected by a number of utility and pipeline easements that limited the type of improvements that could be made due to regulatory requirements. In one case, the easement area cut the site in half lengthwise and was 50 feet wide. A Consent to Encroachment was granted to allow a walkway to cut through the area with the restricition that the ground surface could not be penetrated.

In order to meet the requirements imposed by crossing the high pressure pipeline easement, the walkway for the site was constructed in eight-foot sections elevated four to six inches above the surface resting on rock footings. The sections that cross the easement are hinged with handles on the sides to accommodate removing them when there is a need to gain access to the easement.

Maintenance and Stewardship

The center’s owners are an elected board of five directors, many of whom have served for numerous consecutive terms, and who have total control over the project - its goals, funding, personnel, et cetera. The board provided funding to create the center, and two years ago created a non-profit corporation to provide funds for the center’s future. The investment has been considerable and indicates a long-term commitment to the project.
 
After being chosen as a SITES pilot project, discussions were held about whether or not to hire professional assistance in order to pursue certification. The decision to not contract out the work came partly out of curiosity, partly out of ambition, and mostly out of a sense that hands-on learning to create a sustainable site would be the most beneficial in the long-term. The process of understanding and implementing sustainable practices has left the board members and other individuals at the center with a depth of understanding and commitment that has been significant. This level of individual experience and support are the underpinnings of long-term sustainability for the site. 
 
The need for maintenance has been kept to a minimum. All board members have copies of the maintenance manual submitted as part of the SITES certification process, and it will be used to provide details of daily operations that are intended to maintain goals and objectives of the center. The plan is also part of required training for workers and volunteers.

The Water Conservation Demonstration Center believes that the combination of committed people provides a great basis for long-term sustainability. The Board of Directors is also currently in the process of hiring a new PR firm that will have the ability to track outreach efforts in a systematic way.

Entrance area

Project Goals and Successes

Project goals, which will result from visits and educational opportunities at the center, include 1) a change in the uses of treated water in the landscape through homeowners' initiatave and understanding rather than through regulations, laws, and penalties, 2) a raised awareness by average citizens that sustainability is the responsible way to make purchases, dispose of wastes and unwanted materials, and work holistically within the landscape, and 3) an awareness that taking action locally to reach sustainability goals can be a significant step toward greater stewardship of the earth.
 
In creating demonstrations and features promoting sustainable use of water resources, the WCID also had to address questions of sustainability regarding how those features were designed and installed, creating an over-arching perspective. This new perspective coupled with the latest predictions from the Texas Water Development Board, addressing the potential for water scarcity resulting from drought conditions and predicted population growth rates, reinforces the stated goals.

A key project success, aside from SITES certification, has been the conversion of an under-utilized area surrounding a water treatment plant into a community resource where water conservation techniques and practices are demonstrated and researched, and where habitat is restored. The site, built to provide education about water conservation in the landscape to the public through hands-on experience, has been realized. 

Lessons Learned

Project challenge #1:  Salvaged materials 
Lessons learned: Locally available materials may be available only seasonally. If the design and quantity require changes this can become a challenge, and finding and delivering the materials are key factors in the timing of a project. Additionally, companies that donated fencing did not always have a truck available to bring the product to the site. Donated materials were not cleaned or a standard size. Specifics about the quality and sizes of pickets were specified later, rather than sending a blanket request for used cedar fencing.

Project challenge #2: How to communicate SITES concepts in different languages
Lessons learned: Sustainability is not an easy idea to translate unless an individual is somewhat familiar with its basic concepts. Someone overseeing the project must speak the language of the workers so mistakes are not inadvertently made.

Project challenge #3: Not contributing to greater soil compaction, in an already altered site
Lessons learned: Labor expenses will be higher when no mechanical assistance or motor driven equipment will be used. Roughly, 2 to 3 years' time is needed to reduce compaction using compost and hand tools, and layering of the organic material is key to control moisture. It is an encouraging milestone when earthworms return to the altered soils.

Project challenge #4: Documentation for SITES certification 
Lessons learned: The importance of tying together various documention requirements, including mapped information, tables and charts, and narratives in a way that tells the whole story, and reducing the amount of time required to gather and submit all the required information by having someone familiar with SITES requirements on the integrated design team.

Project Team

Harris County WCID 132
Thomas Mancini, Board of Directors
William Papp, Board of Directors
Gary Toll, Board of Directors
Mary Bonetati, Board of Directors
Bob and Cindy Daniel, Board of Directors
 
Garden Design & Landscaping
Cindy Huey, Landscape Architect
 
HEAD, INC (project management)
Carol Fraser, President
Ken Fraser, photographer, IT 
 
Natureʼs Way Resources
John Ferguson, soil scientist
 
San Jacinto Environmental Supplies 
Mike Serant, organic expert
 
Houston Chapter Native Plant Society
Linda Knowles, President
 
AEI Engineering
Dano Lozano, LEED accredited civil engineer, hydrologist
Monet Snyder, CAD designer
 
Consultants and technical support
Liane Pomfret, assistant manager 
Alfonso Gomez, construction consultant
Farrar Stockton, butterfly expert
Jane Szymezak, HHWB
Bryan Tarbox, graduate student