A Wetlands Walk with Joe Morina

By Chris Patrick, science writer

“Are you going to tell us why you’re holding that tube?” a man asks Joe Morina on a sunny Saturday in October at the Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Rice Rivers Center.

“I’m going to take a soil core once we get down to the marsh,” Morina responds. “to show you the soils, and talk more about the soils, plants, and what makes them unique.”

Morina has been frequenting the Rice Rivers Center—a 494-acre field station devoted to environmental science that sits on the banks of the James River in Charles City, Virginia—since he was an undergraduate studying biology at VCU. Now, as a Virginia Sea Grant graduate research fellow, and PhD student at VCU, he continues visiting the Center to study its wetlands, especially how their soil-dwelling microbes cycle nitrogen.

Today, he’s taking 20 Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) volunteers on a tour of the Rice Rivers Center property to teach them about wetlands. Morina partnered with the CBF for the outreach component of his Virginia Sea Grant fellowship. Through CBF events like this aptly named Wetlands Walk, he aspires to inform citizens of the importance of wetlands, and wetland restoration in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Joe Morina leads Wetland Walk attendees down to a tidal freshwater marsh at VCU Rice Rivers Center. ©Ian Vorster/VASG
Joe Morina leads Wetland Walk participants to a tidal freshwater wetland at VCU Rice Rivers Center. ©Ian Vorster/VASG

After Morina leads the volunteers down a steep forest path to the Center’s tidal freshwater wetland, he asks the group: “What is a wetland?”

“That’s a trick question!” contends one woman.

“It is a trick question,” Morina admits. “Because there are different definitions based on who you are. But generally, defining wetlands is a trident approach.” He went on to list the three characteristics of a wetland: soil covered with water for part of the growing season, hydric soil (soil formed under saturated conditions), and plants that can live in saturated soils.

Joe Morina shows Wetland Walk participants a sample of wetland soil. ©Ian Vorster/VASG
Joe Morina shows Wetland Walk participants a sample of wetland soil. ©Ian Vorster/VASG

After defining wetlands, Morina explains the jobs they do. Wetlands filter water by trapping sediment, nutrients, and pollutants. Their sponge-like soil can store water to reduce flooding. Their plants stabilize shorelines, and act like a buffer protect the shore from high energy waves. Wetlands also provide habitat for animals and plants, and are nurseries for fish and other marine life that support fishing industries.

The wetland on the Center’s property had not always been capable of doing these jobs. It was submerged when Kimages Creek was dammed to form Lake Charles in the 1920s. When the dam was removed in 2011, the Center began restoration of the wetland to its natural ecology. VCU students and faculty now monitor the wetland as it continues to return to its pre-dam state.

“For the most part, we want the system to restore itself,” Morina says.

Watch the video above to see Morina guiding his Wetlands Walk.

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