OLDS, Alta. — A botanical garden in the middle of a semi-arid climate is a treat for visitors, but it’s also an important research venue.
In 2013, Olds College established a 20 acre wetland with 19 ponds on a former horse pasture to learn more about how these ecosystems function.
The area is a living laboratory for students and the public to demonstrate wetland and land management. Its goal is to create a living model for rural and urban water conservation and recycling.
“It is helpful for landowners who are interested in wetland areas and want to keep them healthy,” said Toby Williams at the Olds College Centre for Innovation, which manages the site.
Water is pumped in, and runoff from the campus flows into the area. No water comes from the college feedlot or barns so it is relatively free of major contaminants.
Wetland friendly plants like wild rice, native plants and cattails were planted. Before long, ducks, geese and other waterfowl moved in, along with insects, frogs, minnows, muskrats, beaver and deer.
“They are all the product of the evolution of a new ecosystem,” said Jane Reksten, manager of botanic gardens and greenhouses at the college. “It is amazing how they will populate.”
Water is circulated through a series of ponds that have been planted with different types of vegetation designed to remove contaminants. The water ends up in a final pond where it is used to irrigate the gardens and the prairie turf research centre on the east side of campus.
Sensors in the ponds monitor levels of chloride, electrical conductivity, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, oxygen reduced potential, pH, turbidity and temperature.
Working with partners such as Ducks Unlimited, demonstration projects show what can be done to clean up water and encourage growth of a new ecosystems.
One demonstration project has installed floating islands made from a variety of materials, which create an environment in which key microbes thrive and help clean water. The islands also grow plants on top to remove contaminants from the water.
The college is also propagating native wetland plants and collecting seeds from a thriving crop of wild rice. Researchers were not sure if the crop would grow in central Alberta, but so far it has been a success.
To prevent plants from going wild and spreading, everything is chopped down when the ponds freeze in winter.
“Each of our ponds is like its own ecosystem and we do not want the plants spreading from pond to pond,” Williams said.
Other research could include riparian studies to test bioengineering techniques or establishing a saline ecosystem because most of southern Alberta deals with saline soils and water.