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Art in the name of water

North Liberty’s storm drain murals provide environmental platform
Liberty High junior Haley Grahlman paints a water vortex on a pond outflow box with assistance from Penn Elementary art teacher Heidi Goeken Wednesday, July 25, at Liberty Centre Pond. The mural was the second of three painted that week along West Cherry Street in North Liberty, as part of a campaign to bring awareness to the role storm drains play in Iowa’s water quality. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– Those who cruised through Cherry Street last week likely noticed some colorful new additions near Liberty Centre Pond.
Looking to educate the public on the role storm drains play in Iowa’s water quality, students of North Liberty schools found their voice in the form of a paintbrush, creating vibrant murals on three storm drains. The idea was adopted this past spring by North Liberty’s Tree and Storm Water Advisory Board, and a committee formed to manage the pilot year of the storm drain art program. The project used $1,000 from the city’s storm water budget, with MidWestOne Bank offering a matching donation. Leftover funds will likely carrying over into future implementation of the program, should it continue.
Students of Penn Elementary and Liberty High submitted designs, which were selected by the committee in May. Under the supervision of local artist and Penn Elementary art teacher Heidi Goeken, four students were chosen to create the murals, devoting one day to each piece on Tuesday, July 24; Wednesday, July 25; and Saturday, July 28.
Aiden Gillespie (seventh grade), Cooper Davenport (seventh grade), Haley Grahlman (11th grade), and Madeline Snow (seventh grade) painted a fish and a river landscape on two storm drains and a water vortex on the top of Liberty Centre Pond’s outflow box.
Liberty High junior Haley Grahlman said she was inspired by her art teacher, Jenny Saylor, to take up the mural project. Brushing persistently alongside Goeken under a hot sun Wednesday, July 25, at Liberty Centre Pond, Grahlman said she hopes to continue to use art as a form of expression and communication into adulthood.
The idea to bring murals to North Liberty was initially spurred by a family trip. Darice Baxter, Storm Water Coordinator for the University of Iowa and member of North Liberty’s Tree and Storm Water Advisory Board, encountered a painted intake while visiting a park with her husband and son in Bella Vista, Ark. The colorful painting prompted questions from her curious boy.
“I thought it was pretty interesting because it became a talking point for me and my son, to convey to him the importance of water quality,” she recalled.
Baxter was able to make contact with the person in charge of the program in Arkansas and introduced the idea to the Iowa Storm Water Education Partnership (ISWEP), of which North Liberty is part of, as well as the city’s Tree and Storm Water Advisory Board. ISWEP piloted the idea in Grinnell, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.
“Water quality is important to me not only professionally but personally,” cited Baxter, an environmental scientist and volunteer of North Liberty for over five years. She sees the project as both a creative and vital measure to bring awareness to the impact of water quality in the community.
“It’s a common misconception that storm water runoff from streets, parking lots and driveways flows to a treatment plant before it’s released into the environment, and the reality is that storm water and all the pollution that it can carry– now including litter, pet waste, lawn fertilizers, leaves, grass clippings, automobile oil, road salt– those flow directly or indirectly to our local creeks, streams and rivers untreated,” Baxter explained.
“I feel that it’s important for our citizens to know that everyday activities can be polluting storm water runoff, and that was the main goal of bringing it to the attention of our community,” she summarized.
Baxter credited art teachers Goeken and Saylor for their efforts to make the project come to life and noted the possibility to continue it in North Liberty.
“I would hope in the future that we would see some more and that they become a platform for a conversation about water quality and how it impacts our daily lives within our own community,” Baxter said, noting the water quality management practices of Centennial Park, including its permeable pavers and bioswale. “Hopefully someday we’ll paint some out there as well.”
With over 36,000 square feet of bioswale area, possibly one of the largest of any public park in the State of Iowa, Centennial Park offers a strong example of North Liberty’s efforts to curb water pollution.
So far, the mural project appears to be a well-received addition to the city’s repertoire in curbing pollution.
“It seems that a lot of people have enjoyed it,” remarked Mike Wolfe, Stormwater Coordinator for the City of North Liberty. Wolfe noted the Tree and Storm Water Advisory Board is discussing possibility of introducing more murals to North Liberty on an annual or semi-annual basis. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to continue with the program.”