Looking for ways to save money, the City of Sioux Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant recently converted 28 acres of lawn to native grass and wildflowers.
"Mowing all that grass was a fulltime job. We had one employee who spent 40 hours each week on a mower," said Tom Lang, biosolids coordinator for the City of Sioux Falls, and the man who came up with the green plan which requires no mowing, watering or fertilizer.
Lang is no stranger to the benefits native grasses provide. For more than 10 years he supervised the conversion of more than 200 acres of farmland along the Big Sioux River to native grasses. Prior to planting the land to native grasses, the wastewater treatment plant rented the land to an area farmer. However, its proximity to the river meant that many years the land was too wet to farm, sitting idle and leading to erosion issues and weed problems.
"We needed a long-term solution that would take care of itself – native grasses do just that. Once they are established, we really don’t have to worry about them," said Lang, who was a farmer for 18 years prior to working for the City of Sioux Falls.
The City of Sioux Falls Wastewater Treatment facility sits on more than 40 acres of land north of Sioux Falls and is surrounded by more than 200 acres of land which creates a buffer zone along the Big Sioux River and surrounding the Plant itself. This buffer zone has been planted to native grasses, but several acres of green space around the facility remain as turf grass and still require constant care.
To convert this green space to a green solution, Lang worked with Jason Tronbak, Millborn Seeds’ conservation specialist and John Parker, field service technician for Minnehaha Conservation District. Tronbak developed a customized seed mix and served as a project consultant along with Parker, who oversaw the planting process.
Before developing a customized seed mixture, Tronbak spent time getting to know the land and its unique growing conditions. He then sat down with Lang and other managers at the Wastewater Treatment Facility to understand their goals for the project.
"The land we were working with was diverse. It had many different soil types and growing conditions, so I designed a seed mix with a lot of species and genetic diversity," said Tronbak, a certified wildlife biologist who takes a hands-on approach when helping landowners develop conservation, CRP and wildlife habitat plans.
Although native grasses and wildflowers are a low-maintenance solution over the long term, establishing a stand can be challenging, which is why Lang wanted to work with specialists to ensure the right steps were taken early on to achieve a successful stand establishment.
"They were a good team to work with. They were always available to answer questions and made sure things were done right," Lang said.
Only a year after planting, a successful stand of native grasses and wildflowers now stands – maintenance free – requiring no water, fertilizer or mowing.
"We were shocked when within the first year we already saw a lot of grass coming up. This is just the second year and there are grasses that stand 5 to 6 feet tall," Lang said.
He adds that the diverse mix of color provided by wildflowers and native grasses provides a beautiful landscape for visitors and employees to enjoy maintenance free.
"Not only do we no longer need to spend money on mowing and watering, we no longer need to use herbicides or fertilizer which is better for the environment and for the wildlife. The Wastewater Treatment Plant is within the City limits and you would not believe the numbers of pheasants, deer, birds and insects we see in the native grasses," said Lang, adding that the employee who used to spend his days mowing didn’t lose his job. He was transferred to a different position. "It’s a really good feeling to invest in something that will benefit the land for years to come."
Every few years the native grasses will be cut and sold as livestock feed. Lang says this is an added benefit that will eventually cover the cost of establishing the native grasses.
"It’s the green way of doing things that everyone is trying to achieve," said Parker, who also works with private individuals to establish native grasses. "This project shows that the City of Sioux Falls is trying to do the right thing on land that is not used for buildings or roadways."
When Tom Lang (far right), biosolids coordinator for the City of Sioux Falls, decided to plant native grasses where lawn once stood, he called on John Parker (far left), field service technician for Minnehaha Conservation District and Jason Tronbak, conservation specialist with Millborn Seeds to help.
Looking for ways to save money, the City of Sioux Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant recently converted 28 acres of lawn to native grass and wildflowers. A green solution that requires no mowing, watering or fertilizer.