One February day in 2009, N.C. Arboretum youth educator Jonathan Marchal was strolling the gardens when he heard what sounded like a hundred ducks in a woody spot down the hill. Unaware of an aquatic place in that vicinity that could house so many birds, he began bushwhacking toward the noise — and discovered not ducks, but a pond full of wood frogs, which start breeding that time of year.
“That was a pretty big surprise, but I was just delighted because I had no idea we had a pond that we could start bringing programming within,” says Marchal, now the arboretum’s director of education.
Marchal and his colleagues have since used the pond, originally built for sediment capture during construction of the arboretum’s core buildings, for educational programs such as summer camps and youth field trips. But thanks to a recently completed three-year, $2 million project, the spot known as Willow Pond will now provide even greater opportunities to teach the community about wetland ecosystems.
The new outdoor classroom and garden area features three distinct ponds, a boardwalk, a 20-person teaching shelter and interpretive signage, complete with a frog kiosk that plays different amphibian vocalizations. Marchal will share more details about Willow Pond in a virtual presentation to the Western North Carolina Sierra Club at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 4.
Beyond Willow Pond’s role in education programs, the site’s transformation itself teaches the importance of protecting wetland habitats. After arboretum staff first began using the site, Marchal recalls, they discovered a particular mole salamander designated as a species of special concern in North Carolina. Naturalists with the state Wildlife Resources Commission soon visited and were elated to find both adult and juvenile mole salamanders in the pond.
“We continued to monitor it that way, but as we were noticing, the pond was continuing to fill up with sediment,” Marchal says. “If we didn’t do anything, it was just going to fill in completely, and we’d be losing that educational component. But even more importantly, we’d be losing that aquatic habitat.”
As arboretum leaders redesigned the pond, they tied the project in with the property’s parking renovations, which included permeable pavers to help reduce stormwater runoff and soil erosion. Marchal worked with the WRC to time most construction for when the salamanders naturally left the water to live beneath logs and rocks in the forest.
Nervous that some species might not return to Willow Pond given the extensive construction, Marchal and other arboretum staffers placed sticks and logs in the water to make it more hospitable for creatures to lay their eggs. Those efforts paid off when wood frogs started using the debris for that purpose, a sight Marchal says made him “a little bit emotional” in early February.
“Not only have we seen the frogs return and the insects, but we’ve now found mole salamanders back into the pond, too,” he says. “We’ve also seen pairs of mallard ducks down there. That’s not really something we ever saw before.”
Thanks to the arboretum’s increased stormwater management efforts, which also include a floating wetland in the main pond and riser structures between all three bodies of water, Marchal is optimistic that staff and visitors alike will notice other new additions to Willow Pond. He’s hopeful that four-toed salamanders, also a state species of special concern, may establish a population there. The pond may also attract bog turtles, a threatened species likewise found in the area but not yet spotted on the property.
“We never had any water filtration as a part of this, so the water coming off of the parking lot would just go untreated into the pond,” Marchal says. “It’s kind of amazing that we have that degree of aquatic life there, knowing how sensitive they are to pollution. But now we’ll hopefully have a situation where it’s a cleaner pond and we may find more sensitive species that will be able to exist in it now.”
Marchal sees Willow Pond as an example for the broader WNC community of how people can improve wetland environments by managing stormwater. The salamanders and other organisms that inhabit wetlands, he notes, play a vital role in supporting plants and animals throughout the entire ecosystem.
“Pollution does not stay contained either, sadly, and salamanders are sensitive to many water pollutants,” Marchal says. “Impacts anywhere in the French Broad River watershed, even in downtown Asheville, can threaten our salamander populations.”
Both Asheville and Buncombe County governments have departments to address stormwater management. Victoria Hoyland, Buncombe County stormwater administrator, says she’s still getting her bearings after approximately six months on the job. She’s looking forward to the county’s upcoming comprehensive plan, where she sees the potential for increased community engagement.
“I think a component of that will be stakeholder engagement on stormwater, [plus] environmental and resilience topics,” Hoyland says. “I’m excited to see if the community has any interest in evaluating our current ordinances and seeing if they warrant an update based on community needs.”
Hoyland says revised stormwater policy could help the county address climate adaptation and changing weather patterns, as well as improve water quality in regional streams. In generating best practices, she’ll seek input from such regional groups as Land of Sky Regional Council, MountainTrue and the state Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources.
On the city level, spokesperson Polly McDaniel points to the Carter-Ann Street and Kenilworth stormwater projects as two important undertakings by the Public Works Department’s Stormwater Division, which manages infrastructure on city property and rights of way. Both projects aim to improve drainage and intercept more water, reducing ponding and runoff problems.
“[We’re] working to be proactive in replacing aging infrastructure before it fails, as well as trying to plan out future projects where stormwater infrastructure is needed,” says Public Works Assistant Director Amy Deyton.