Farewell-to-spring, bluehead gilia and common madia speckled Clark Public Utilities’ rows of solar panels with purple, blue and yellow bursts.
Once a lifeless lawn, the meadow at the utility’s Orchards Operations Center has flourished with native plants since it was established in 2022. Row, till and water. Repeat. That’s the roughly yearlong process used for creating the meadow, which now is a hands-off operation minus occasional weeding to prevent overcrowding.
It’s one of many locations where Clark Public Utilities is attracting birds, bees and every pollinator in between by adding biodiversity to its property.
Michael O’Loughlin, Clark Public Utilities environmental sustainability manager, pitched making the utility’s land to be more hospitable to pollinators. Utilities own large properties to host substations, office buildings and power line corridors, many of which are lifeless landscapes. Companies traditionally mow brush and other vegetation to keep rights of way clear that could impose challenges on utility infrastructure.
This landscape management reduces biodiverse habitats and creates a barrier for pollinator species. When looking at the meadow, O’Loughlin smiled at its success.
To date, he said he has seen four species of bees use the meadow as a nesting ground, something unheard of when it was just a grass patch surrounded by office buildings, busy roads and paved parking lots. In the coming years, populations will continue to rise and attract new species.
Within sight of the meadow is Clark Public Utilities’ Operations Center garden, which was designed to bloom throughout the season and host ground dwelling pollinators, such as caterpillars and specialist bees. Nearby, native plants dot shallow basins that act as rain gardens, collecting and filtering water runoff. In downtown Vancouver, the utility’s electric center showcases multiple examples of native vegetation that is delicious to important pollinators.
In the future, Clark Public Utilities will expand its pollinator habitats to its substations and corridors.
All the gardens fall under Clark Public Utilities’ Pollinator Project, established in 2021, which was born from the utility’s stream restoration program. The project’s foundation didn’t focus on pollinators, but its goal of improving urban ecology and community ties resonates.
Clark Public Utilities is the first public utility in the state to incorporate pollinator habitats to its infrastructure. The organization was ahead of the curve of legislation that would eventually require similar programs.
In 2021, the Legislature passed a bill to increase state agencies’ and industries’ protection and preservation of pollinator habitats, including developing public educational programs. It was based on recommendations from the Pollinator Health Task Force, which O’Loughlin sits on, to generally require entities to consider habitats when managing lands.
O’Loughlin said Clark Public Utilities’ pollinator project can also compel others to do the same — multiplying the benefit urban spaces can contribute to native pollinators.
That’s the main reason behind the utility’s upcoming pollinator festival Saturday. Attendees will be able to tour the gardens and learn how they can do the same in their own home.
“The whole reason for this festival is not to show off who we are but to show people how they can make something similar at home no matter what size of the space they have,” O’Loughlin said.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.