Dr. Chas. Gowan
On the surface, Ashland’s Mechumps Creek may seem idyllic. Stroll down to the creek,
which parallels Route 54, and it looks as if the water’s fine. But several years
ago, Randolph-Macon students discovered that something was threatening the health
of this Ashland landmark.
In 2003, Professors Chas. Gowan and Lauren Bell taught “A River Runs Through It,”
part of the college’s First-Year Experience (FYE) pilot program. The course was
devoted to developing a watershed management plan for Mechumps Creek, and students
shared their plan with the Town of Ashland, whose interest was piqued.
Fast forward to 2006, when Gowan, along with Professor Reber Dunkel, taught “Repairing
Nature,” part of that year’s FYE verdant crop of course offerings.
The course focused on identifying the effects of development on stream ecosystems
and the options for reversing damage. Students discovered that an overabundance
of water—as well as pollution—was eroding the soil on the banks of Mechumps. Under
natural conditions, water seeps slowly out of the watershed after rainfall, but
because of the town of Ashland’s changing infrastructure, rainwater was carried
too quickly from storm drains to the creek, causing soil erosion and threatening
A key element of “Repairing Nature” centered on understanding the community’s social
organization, evaluating changes in land use over time and assessing various stakeholders’
opinions about the stream. As a culminating class project, students presented their
plans for restoring the stream to the Town government and any interested stakeholders.
The students’ proposal was met with great enthusiasm: the Town, eager to solidify
its relationship with Randolph-Macon College, deemed the project feasible and offered
to finance part of it. The Williamsburg Environmental Group (WEG) was hired to provide
a preliminary design for the rehabilitation of the creek, and in January 2008 Dr.
Gowan received word that the Town had awarded R-MC $30,000 in grant money; these
funds will pay WEG for its work in the initial phase of the restoration endeavor.
Says Gowan, “It was really gratifying for both the faculty and students involved
to see that their hard work in developing a restoration plan was actually going
to pay off. So often, plans just sit on a shelf. But this was a case where the plan
was so well-received that it is actually going to be implemented. The creek and
its ecosystem will be restored.”
Funding is needed for the final design plans and the construction itself, and R-MC
students currently enrolled in Professor Bud Watson’s grant-writing course are responsible
for writing grant proposals for this vital financial support.
The ripples of the Mechumps restoration undertaking have spread to Randolph-Macon’s
campus. Because storm runoff also impacts the college, a Low Impact Development
project (LID) was implemented. The project involved refurbishing existing storm
drains on R-MC’s campus, surrounding the drains with porous soil and planting flora
that flourish in LID conditions. Randolph-Macon College now sports six such LID
drainage areas, financed through a grant that paid for the services of an engineer,
a contractor and a landscaper. In addition, WEG donated its services and provided
some of the supplies needed. R-MC students helped with the planting, and the Water
Conservation Service and the Town of Ashland helped facilitate the plan, cultivating
partnerships with the college that continue to grow. The project’s success is multi-faceted:
it solved some of R-MC’s drainage problems; there is less work for college staff
in terms of maintenance; and it serves as a teaching tool, encouraging student research.
The scope of Gowan’s networking efforts has come full circle. “The college is creating
partnerships with other agencies...and that has benefited students. We have at least
four students who are now full-time employees of WEG. They know we produce good
students…and so they hire them.”
Gowan’s zeal for improving the quality of Ashland’s environment is palpable as he
explains the positive aftershocks of the Mechumps and LID projects. “The great thing
is that what we’ve done so far has inspired the creation of new FYE courses and
continues to fuel enthusiasm for R-MC’s environmental studies courses. Not all of
our problems are solved, but we’ll keep working on it.”