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UND's English Coulee Has Gained Two New ‘Islands' That Are Doing More Than Prettying up the Campus

by Matt Eidson, UND University & Public Affairs student writer

Posted on 6/27/2016

When Rachel Thorstenson, from Plymouth, Minn., began her freshman year at the University of North Dakota, she was inspired to accomplish a task that would take almost three years to complete.

Thorstenson, an avid conservationist studying biology at UND, unknowingly began her journey when she came across a sight that was as hard on the eyes as it was the nose: the English Coulee. As a person who considers herself and all others responsible for taking care of the environment, Thorstenson knew something had to be done.

Members of the UND Environmental Restoration Club prepare the first of two Members of the UND Environmental Restoration Club prepare the first of two "floating islands" to be place in the English Coulee near the Adelphi Fountain area. The floating islands are designed to mimic a wetland habitat that will also help to naturally filter out chemical runoff into the coulee. The islands are 90 square feet in size. At left, wearing a cap and sunglasses, is Rachel Thorstenson, club president. Photo by Richard Larson.

"The environment isn't just a job for the environmentalist and the biologists," Thorstenson says. "The environment is something were all a part of; we all take away from it and we all use it, so it should be everybody's responsibility, regardless of what your career path is."

During the spring semester 2015, Thorstenson completed a one-credit special topics course presented by UND's Phil Gerla, associate professor of geology and geological engineering and Nick Ralston, who at that time was a research manager at UND's Energy & Environmental Research Center. The course focused on the English Coulee and steps that could be taken to enhance its aesthetic appeal and ecological condition; Thorstenson began to consider what she could do to inspire environmental change on campus.

"Rachel is a leader, and it was obvious in the class," Gerla said. "She has good ideas, she speaks up and she also did not give up when things didn't go well."

Help from friends

Taking matters into her own hands, Thorstenson brainstormed and researched different ways she could improve the coulee. She eventually learned about floating islands. The islands could be filled with soil and a large variety of native plants, anchored into an area -- such as the coulee -- and begin the natural process of filtering and cleaning the water.

With an idea of how to clean up the coulee, Thorstenson knew she would need some assistance.

A quartet of ducks enjoy a respite on one of the new A quartet of ducks enjoy a respite on one of the new "floating islands" that were installed in UND's English Coulee by members of the school's Environmental Restoration Club, led by Plymouth, Minn. native and UND student Rachel Thorstenson. Photo by Richard Larson.

Thorstenson met Brian Darby, an assistant professor of biology at UND, who took an immediate interest in her plan. Thorstenson decided that starting an on-campus club would be the best way to quickly involve more students and receive the funding necessary to purchase the islands. With that, UND's Environmental Restoration Club was born.

Darby admits he didn't play a large role in the formation of the Environmental Restoration Club, but that he provided assistance that the club needed. Even though Darby wasn't technically part of the club, he worked closely enough with Thorstenson to develop a strong opinion of her.

"She approached each roadblock and solved everything," Darby said. "I was very impressed with her ability to secure the funds and the support necessary to come up with the idea. It was great to watch her do this."


After locating Midwest Floating Islands, a company that manufactures the small islands needed for the project, Thorstenson ran into another issue that needed to be addressed: funding. At $50 per square foot, and more than 150 square feet of floating islands needed, Thorstenson had some fundraising to do.

While the Student Organization Funding Agency was willing to donate funds to the project, more was needed. That's when one of Thorstenson's professors came across a grant proposal opportunity and forwarded the information to Thorstenson -- the night before the proposal was due.

"Literally I had a night to type up this grant proposal," Thorstenson says. "So I pulled an all-nighter and did that, sent it in and we ended up getting $2,500 from AMPLIFY, (a UND Division of Research and Economic Development) effort to assist student start-up projects."

With the funding secured and the materials acquired, Thorstenson got volunteers to assist the club in accomplishing the task. With each island weighing hundreds of pounds, Thorstenson needed more people to help than just those in the club.

UND Facilities stepped up and offered assistance to the student organization.

With the floating islands now in place, Thorstenson still has big plans for the coulee, one of which includes purchasing species-specific birdhouses for the area. Her goal for placing the bird houses near the coulee is to increase awareness of different types of birds for students, staff and faculty who walk by the coulee.

"This could be one of those very few moments when one person made a decision to make something better and they stuck with it until it happened," Darby says. "It was very much a self-initiative on her part. She brought in a lot of other folks and a lot of other folks helped, but there was a significant individual effort on her part."

Behind the science

When you see the two small islands floating in the coulee, you might wonder how they're supposed to accomplish any change.

According to Thorstenson, it's a slow process that will take shape over time.

Thorstenson says the root of the problem is that there are far too many nutrients in the coulee's water and sediment. This constant influx and storage of nutrients helps the growth of algae, which then decompose, providing a meal for bacteria. The large amounts of bacteria are to blame for the waterway's odor, especially in the spring and fall.

With more wetland plants, the nutrients will be absorbed from the water, creating a natural filtering process that will both beautify the area as well as reduce of the smell.

According to Gerla, the plants might even absorb certain metals and toxins within the water; an idea he would like to test in the future by analyzing the plants for phosphorus and any other compounds that may have been taken up from the water.

While the two islands alone will have little effect, Gerla says the islands are an excellent start.

"But there are so many different variables that come into play; the water shed for the coulee is primarily city streets, Columbia mall and the agricultural fields west of Grand Forks," Gerla said. "There's a high bacterial content to the water and a lot of nutrients; anything that you find on city streets works its way into the coulee eventually. So to actually mitigate the problem and make some progress on the water quality, it's going to take an effort on the part of nearly everyone in the city."

Surprising future

Considering the amount of time and work Thorstenson has put into UND's Environmental Restoration Club, her love for the natural environment around her and the biology degree she will be earning in the next two years, her future vocation might be a bit surprising -- dentistry.

"Ever since I was little I've always really loved nature and studying nature," Thorstenson says. "That's how I got into biology. To me, everything's connected. Maybe I'm not using my biology degree to go do field research, but I'm still able to see how everything's connected."

A young woman of varying interests, Thorstenson hopes to attend the University of Minnesota after graduating from UND. But during her time at UND, she has been on the diving team, pursued a chemistry minor and continued to hone her bilingual skills by taking Spanish.

All this, while orchestrating a plan to improve the coulee; a plan that cost nearly $10,000 to complete.

Thorstenson admits that she has been so busy during her time at UND that she will graduate a year later than she intended. With so much of her time being taken up by school, some might wonder why Thorstenson dedicates so much time to the environment.

"My motivation is it bothers me that (the state of the environment) is really bad and people don't see it as their responsibility," Thorstenson said.

While the first of many steps has been taken to fix issues with the coulee, one problem remains: Thorstenson will be a senior this coming fall semester.

"I'm trying to find someone that, when I leave, can keep leading and pushing it," Thorstenson says. "It's so common for a club to start up and fall through when the person who started it graduates. I'm trying to find people right now who are younger than me and are interested in keeping this going."

Calling all environmentalists:

If you're a young student who feels a strong urge to give back to the environment, and would like to help make a difference on campus, make sure you visit the Environmental Restoration Club's UND page. There, you'll find the contact information for Thorstenson and the club's advisor, Philip Gerla.

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