The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is currently in the process of replanting the urban prairie between Madison and Oliver Hall.

Native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs are to be planted in the urban prairie. This was first started by UL Lafayette in 2018 and is the university’s second bioswale. It was also one of the university’s first Living Lab projects, which brought in people from different fields and disciplines to work towards solutions to sustainability challenges.

The urban prairie features an inland storm drain that catches storm water runoff after it’s filtered through the native plants.

Gretchen Vanicor, director of sustainability, spoke on the urban prairie’s positive effects.

“We’re reducing our impact on local flash flooding, and because of the native plants that we’re utilizing, any sort of contaminants that are coming off of rooftops, or parking lots, or sidewalks, these bioswales that are planted with native landscape, they also filtrate that water and provide habitats for pollinators,” Vanicor said.

She also spoke on its important benefit to the Chicot aquifer.

“These native plants help draw down more water into our Chicot aquifer, which is where we get our drinking water supply,” Vanicor said. “Right now, because of regional agriculture and urban development, we are overdrawing our Chicot aquifer, so these types of projects are really, really important to try and balance some of those impacts that we’re having on our local ecology.”

She added that this overdrawing of the aquifer is already having adverse effects on local industry.

“We’re starting to see some impacts, like saltwater intrusion into our aquifer from the Vermilion Bay area, and if that continues to become a really big problem, our farming industry locally could see some bad economic impacts from it.”

As a Living Lab project, those involved learned along the way and have had to adapt to problems as they arose. Previously, the plants had been impeding pedestrian traffic due to being planted too close to the edge of the sidewalk. To address this, a rock bed was put in around the perimeter of the urban prairie, but this introduced another problem.

“It created a levee all the way around the perimeter. So runoff from Oliver Hall and all of the surrounding sidewalks was no longer going into the bioswale and being filtered by all of those native plants and slowly making its way to the inland storm drain,” Vanicor said.

The water was instead going back onto the sidewalks and into a different storm drain without being filtered by the plants. The problem is currently being addressed by those involved in the project.

“We’re working with facilities management and the UL Ecology Center to regrade the area to ensure all of the runoff that’s coming from Oliver as well as the concrete areas at Zeus do eventually make their way through the native plant areas and are filtered before they go into the storm drain,” Vanicor said.

The regrading process is about to be completed, and what remains is the replanting of the area.

“We are working with the Ecology Center and some of our other native plant enthusiasts on campus as well as in the community to get some of the native plants back in there this spring. We may not be able to plant the entire space before the end of the semester, simply because a lot of these plants are really hard to find,” Vanicor said.

There are also plans to implement gravel paths in the area, allowing students and faculty to get farther into the urban prairie.

This urban prairie also serves to preserve many of these native plant species that may have been endangered by urbanization and industrialization.

“The historic Cajun Prairie encompassed over 2.5 million acres in Louisiana and Texas, and supported a highly diverse community of plants, wildlife, and pollinating insects,” the plaque posted outside the urban prairie reads. “Decades of agricultural and industrial practices, urbanization, and land development have nearly eliminated the ecosystem, with less than 0.01 percent remaining.”