As temperatures reach the 90 degree mark, volunteer with the Nature Conservancy Liting Cui, from Cedarville, wipes the sweat from her forehead while working on the 900 -square-foot rain garden being build at the Joseph Buck Park in Millville on Monday. Photo/Dave Griffin

MILLVILLE - It was only about 9 a.m. Monday, but sweat was dripping freely from the folks who were digging through the hard ground next to a parking lot behind the Millville Public Library.

Members of the Nature Conservancy were not complaining about the heat and humidity, but they were looking forward to later this week, when their work will help make the nearby Maurice River a little cleaner.

Nature Conservancy members were digging up a 900-square-foot plot that will be a functioning rain garden by noon Thursday. The garden will take surface runoff from the 7,000-square-foot parking lot and filter it naturally before is makes its way to aquifers or the river.

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For years, the parking lot's surface runoff - contaminated with items such as oil, pet waste and trash - flowed onto the site and then drained through some trees and brush into the Maurice River.

Keeping that river healthy is important for the city, which considers it a valuable tourist attraction, and groups including the Nature Conservancy. The river provides habitat for 53 endangered species. Almost 29 miles of the waterway was added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program in 1993.

The rain garden is about a block from the heart of the city and urban development that includes streets, sidewalks and other downtown development.

Leander Lacy, the Nature Conservancy's urban programs manager, said there are not many areas in the city that have the type of rain garden that would help naturally clean surface runoff. The city did build something like a rain garden a few years ago near its sewage treatment plant on the Maurice River, he said.

The rain garden near the library will serve as a sort of basin that will catch the surface runoff, he said. Water flowing into the rain garden, which will be stabilized with about 140 native flowering plants, will slowly seep into the ground, where it will be cleansed naturally, he said.

The city helped get the project started Friday, when work crews cleared the site of sediment that had built up from years of materials that drained from the parking lot, Lacy said. Those work crews then broke up layer of concrete and asphalt hidden by the sediment, the Glassboro resident said.

The work is being financed by about $2,000 of a $10,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation, he said.

A lot of hard work was still to do Monday to dig up and remove dirt to create the basin and planting area.

Elizabeth Schuster, an environmental economist with the group, said she work on similar projects over the years in South and Central America.

She said projects like the rain garden can help local governments keep costs in line by, for instance, reducing the amount of sediment that treatment facilities must contend. She said these projects are also good public outreach, as they a visible sign of how people can make a difference environmentally.

The work is helping to make Schuster feel at home: She started working for the Nature Conservancy three months ago while living in New Hampshire and taking a break from Monday's work to buy a house here.

Work on the rain garden will continue from 8:30 a.m. to noon Thursday, when the vegetation will be planted.

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