Riverfront climate resilience. Low impact development practices to reduce stormwater runoff. Brownfields redevelopment grant proposals. Forest resilience planning. The impact of sea level rise on marinas. What do all these things have in common? They are all the focus of projects conducted for Connecticut communities by undergraduates enrolled in the Environment Corps, a new educational model gaining momentum at UConn.
in this ambitious project that combines undergraduate classroom instruction, service learning, and Extension outreach to the benefit of both the students and the communities of Connecticut. The UConn Environment Corps (“E-Corps”), funded by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, is designed to get students real world experience in tackling some of today’s most thorny environmental problems as they conduct projects in partnership with town and cities across the state. The project involves an impressive coalition within UConn that includes four schools/colleges, five academic departments, four University centers, and the Provost’s Office.
E-Corps is an outgrowth of the success of the Climate Corps, a three-year pilot project that began in 2016 and is focused on the local impacts of, and responses to, climate change. The Climate Corps is taught by a team of two Extension educators, Juliana Barrett from the Connecticut Sea Grant College Program and Bruce Hyde from the UConn Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR). With the Climate Corps, Juliana, Bruce and the extended project team pioneered the E-Corps approach, that combines a semester of interactive classroom work with a second semester of independent study where student teams work on projects designed to assist Connecticut communities.
The Climate Corps was joined by the Brownfield Corps in 2018, developed and taught by Maria Chrysochoou and Nefeli Bompoti of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE). The Brownfields Corps is a key part of the new Connecticut Brownfields Initiative, also led by CEE. Then, with the spring semester of 2020 came the debut of the Stormwater Corps, taught by Extension educators Mike Dietz, Dave Dickson and Chet Arnold from CLEAR. The success of all three courses depends heavily on the relationships built between these faculty members and the communities of Connecticut, enabling the development of student projects that bring real value to the towns and cities partnering with UConn.
The NSF grant has resulted in the expansion of the original team to include other players at UConn. Experts from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) now assist the course instructors on teaching techniques, and researchers from the Neag School of Education are conducting studies on the impact of the E-Corps model on students, faculty, communities, and the University itself. With 244 students and 53 community projects to date, there is already evidence that the project is having impact. In the case of students, the impact may be broader than the team originally conceived. E-Corps was originally designed to target students majoring in Environmental Sciences, Environmental Studies, and Environmental Engineering, but has already attracted students from 15 other majors, including both STEM (e.g., Biological Sciences, Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering) and non-STEM (e.g., Economics, English, Political Science, Urban and Community Studies) fields.
One goal of the overall project is to extend the reach of the E-Corps model by making it adaptable to other disciplines at UConn, and eventually to peers at other universities. Much of this will depend upon the team’s ability to fashion a faculty and student support system at UConn that can ensure the sustainability of the model beyond the end of the grant. So, stay tuned!
There wasn’t a cheap and simple way to take field measurements of Total Nitrogen (TN). Samples had to be sent to a lab – until now!
To help reduce water quality testing costs, CT DEEP agreed to allow MS4 communities to use less expensive field tests for nitrate and ammonia to estimate Total Nitrogen. If your TN estimate exceeds 2.5 mg/L then a sample should be brought to a lab to officially determine its Total Nitrogen value. If the results are below 2.5 mg/L, you do NOT have to conduct additional nitrogen testing.
To estimate TN for your sample, plug in your values for nitrate (mg/L) and ammonia (mg/L) into this formula: TN=1.94 x [(nitrate + ammonia) ^ 0.639]
When do I have to sample for Total Nitrogen again?
There are a few situations where the MS4 permit requires towns and institutions to sample for Total Nitrogen (TN):
Dry weather baseline screening:
If you see flow during dry weather baseline screening at an outfall that discharges directly to a waterbody impaired by Nitrogen (or ‘Nitrogen and Phosphorus’).
Catchment investigation procedure:
Wet weather sampling of outfalls during the catchment investigation procedure when the receiving waterbody is impaired by Nitrogen (or ‘Nitrogen and Phosphorus’).
Impaired waters monitoring:
If there is a waterbody impaired by Nitrogen (or ‘Nitrogen and Phosphorus’), you need to sample the wet weather discharge from any MS4 outfall that empties directly into that waterbody.
An easy way to see if there is a Nitrogen (or ‘Nitrogen and Phosphorus’) impaired waterbody in your town, go to the MS4 Map Viewer and click on any purple or red waterbody to see what’s listed as its Stormwater Pollutant of Concern in the pop-up window
If you were out and about in the towns of North Haven, Milford, Hamden, West Haven or Cheshire this summer, you may have seen a team of four young adults writing on clipboards, snapping pictures of parking lots, laying their phones down on the sidewalk, and peering down into storm drains. These four intrepid UConn undergrads, nicknamed the Stormwater Corps, were evaluating opportunities for “disconnecting” stormwater through the use of green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) practices such as rain gardens, bioswales, and pervious pavements. Such practices help to infiltrate stormwater runoff into the ground, reducing flooding and water pollution. The students, trained by CLEAR’s water (NEMO) team, were tasked with using a combination of online mapping technology and good old-fashioned field work to look for “low-hanging fruit”-sites in each town where green stormwater practices were likely to be most feasible, have the greatest impact, and be cost-effective. Their findings were compiled into town reports complete with aerial photos and stormwater reduction estimates, and presented by the team to key municipal staff in each town with an emphasis on the “top five” potential sites. The Stormwater Corps project, supported by a grant from the Long Island Sound Futures Fund of theNational Fish and Wildlife Foundation, includes funds for each of the five towns to put toward construction of their top priority GSI practice. CLEAR’s long-range goal is to combine a semester-long stormwater/GSI class with the work with the towns, forming a fully realized third “Corps” program to add to the Climate Corps and Brownfields Corps.
Earlier this summer, New London became the first municipality in Connecticut to establish a stormwater utility which goes into effect January 1, 2019. This means they will begin charging all property owners a fee for their contribution to the city’s stormwater runoff. Previously, New London relied on property taxes to fund maintenance of their stormwater infrastructure which includes all the storm drains and underground pipes that carry runoff from buildings, streets, and parking lots into nearby waterbodies. This model has left much of the city’s stormwater management efforts significantly underfunded. By charging stormwater fees, New London, a small city with many tax-exempt properties, is securing a dedicated funding source to pay for maintaining their stormwater infrastructure and complying with other management efforts, like public outreach, removing illegal discharges from the stormwater system and sampling stormwater discharge for pollutants.
New London may be the only stormwater utility in Connecticut but not in New England. According to a 2016 survey of U.S. stormwater utilities by Western Kentucky University, 3 New England states were home to established stormwater utilities: Maine (5), Vermont (3), and Massachusetts (7). But outside our region, these utilities have become much more common. Overall, the U.S. had nearly 1,600 stormwater utilities led by Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin each having more than 100 a piece. Clearly, there are many states (including some with reputations of having less stringent regulatory environments than CT) that have already embraced stormwater utilities as a practical way to pay for strong municipal stormwater management programs.
It’s well known that rain gardens are great for infiltrating stormwater but people may not realize that they also help destroy common stormwater pollutants. Several studies have found that rather than accumulating pollutants in their soils, rain gardens tend to biodegrade them instead. One study (LeFevre et al., 2011) investigated petroleum hydrocarbon levels in 58 rain gardens in Minneapolis, MN representing a wide range of sizes, vegetation types, and contributing area land uses. The researchers found that petroleum hydrocarbon levels were well below regulatory limits in all the rain gardens sampled. And a tip for future rain garden installers, rain gardens planted with more robust vegetation with deeper roots did a better job at breaking down pollutants than those planted with only turf grass.
A rain garden’s ability to biodegrade pollutants is in contrast to what happens in more conventional stormwater management structures like retention ponds. Retention ponds are often installed with larger developments to receive a large volume of stormwater from impervious areas (ex. houses and roads in a subdivision, roof and parking lot of a Home Depot). Other studies (Van Metre et al., 2009; Van Metre et al., 2000; Kamalakkannan et al., 2004), found that pollutants like PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), a type of petroleum hydrocarbon, accumulate in the sediments of stormwater retention ponds. This creates a very expensive maintenance issue for retention pond owners when the time comes to remove and dispose of built up contaminated sediments.
Side note – stormwater can pick up PAHs from dust on pavements treated with coal tar sealants which are commonly used on parking lots, driveways, and playgrounds (but they have recently been banned from use on State and local highways in CT).
On my drive home last week I saw two of my neighbors walking their dogs. One of the dogs had just done his business and the owner dutifully scooped it up with a doggy doodie bag dangling from the dog’s leash. Excellent, I thought, he knows that dog poop left on the street can be carried by stormwater into our storm drain and then pollute our waterways with bacteria. As a water quality educator, I was pleased to see the “scoop the poop” message was getting out.
However, my neighbor then proceeded to drop the doodie bag directly into the storm drain! So, there is still work to do. Once you scoop it, you need dispose of it properly – either in the garbage or flushed down the toilet (minus the plastic bag). Not carry it directly to the storm drain.
This has gotten me to think more about how we educate the public about the impacts of common everyday activities on our lakes, streams and rivers. Under our new state stormwater management regulations (a.k.a, the MS4 permit) towns are required to educate their citizens on the impacts things like pet waste and fertilizer have on our waters when transported to our storm drain system. However, if towns are going to invest/spend their limited time and resources on public outreach, it makes sense that they ensure they are as effective as possible at conveying the whole message, while also keeping it simple.
Haddam – As the state gets wetter, Connecticut cities and towns have little choice but to take better control of the water that flows over streets, parking lots and fields from rainfall and snowmelt.
“There are two drivers related to stormwater,” said David Dickson, faculty member of the UConn Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR). “One is climate change. New England is seeing more rain and more intense rainfall events. The other is the MS4 general permit, which became effective in 2017.”
Dickson, speaking at a March 22 symposium sponsored by the UConn Climate Adaptation Academy, explained that MS4 — the shorthand term for the new state regulation for how municipal stormwater is managed — now requires cities and towns to reduce nonporous pavement on streets, sidewalks and parking lots. It also requires they establish “low impact development” practices as the standard for new construction. The state regulation is the result of a federal mandate under provisions of the Clean Water Act requiring gradually stricter rules to curb pollution.
“Towns have to enter into a retrofit program to reduce impervious surface areas by two percent by 2022,” Dickson said. “LID now has to be the standard for development. You can’t just say it’s too costly. This is going to change how we think about site development in this state.”
The third workshop in a series on the impacts of changing weather patterns on local land-use practices, the symposium drew about 50 municipal officials from around the state. It was presented at the Middlesex County Extension Center by the Climate Adaptation Academy, a partnership of CT Sea Grant, CLEAR and the UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. The Rockfall Foundation co-sponsored the event.
Overall, the purpose of the session was to educate local officials about “what works and what to watch out for to ensure success” when it comes to implementing low impact development, said Tony Marino, executive director of the Rockfall Foundation.
Dickson, the first of the four presenters, explained that with increasing amounts and intensity of precipitation, the impacts of unmanaged stormwater carrying road and agricultural pollutants into the environment are increasing.
“Stormwater is the top source of water pollution into Long Island Sound,” he said.
In the 1990s, low-impact development techniques emerged including “green roofs” covered with planted beds to absorb rainfall, grass swales to replace curbs and gutters, rain gardens and bio-retention areas with trees and shrubs situated to absorb runoff, and permeable pavement that allows water to infiltrate into the soil. That allows the soil to capture pollutants and groundwater to be recharged.
Since then, LID designs have been used at several sites on UConn’s main campus and in the Jordan Cove housing development in Waterford, among other locations around the state. While at least one-third of towns in Connecticut have adopted LID techniques at various levels, Dickson said, the new regulation means all towns will have to commit to making them the standard practice because it’s an economical and effective way to comply with the requirement to curtail stormwater runoff.
“Towns will have to start thinking about where impervious cover drains directly into their stormwater system, and enter into retrofit programs to reduce impervious areas,” he said.
Michael Dietz, water resources educator with CLEAR, said that more than 20 years after they were built, the LID features in the Jordan Cove development are still working. Research shows significantly less runoff coming from the portion of the development with LID compared to the control section built with traditional design features, he said. The LID structures continued to function even when the homeowners failed to maintain the areas correctly, he noted.
“The take-home message is that LID mostly still works, in spite of what people do,” he said.
At the main UConn campus, Dietz said, LID has “become part of the fabric of the design” for all new construction since it was first used in the early 2000s. But over those years, there have been mistakes and lessons learned, he added. In one case, curbs were installed where they weren’t supposed to be so runoff ended up being directed away from a bio-retention area. In another case, the bio-retention area was poorly located on the way students took to a dining hall, creating a compacted path that reduced its effectiveness.
“We failed to factor in people,” Dietz said.
The area, he said, was redesigned with a footpath through the middle that still allowed for runoff capture.
In another example, a parking lot next to the field house covered with permeable concrete “totally failed” last year and was allowing for “zero infiltration.” The concrete was not mixed and handled properly, he said, and curing time was insufficient, among other problems. It has been replaced with pre-cast pervious concrete blocks. Other challenges include the need for regular cleaning of pervious pavement to unclog porous spaces.
“You neglect it, it costs you down the road,” Dietz said.
Giovanni Zinn, city engineer for New Haven, said the dozens of bio-retention areas, rain gardens, swales and pervious pavement areas installed around the city do require more planning and attention.
“But if you simplify your designs, the construction will be less costly and they’ll be easier to maintain,” he said. Overall, he added, maintenance costs are less costly than for traditional infrastructure.
He advised choosing low-maintenance plantings and involving local residents and community groups in the projects. Looking ahead, New Haven is planning to build 200 more planted swales to capture runoff in the downtown area and another 75 in other parts of town.
“The bio-swales are the first step in dealing with our flash flooding issues in the downtown,” he said.
David Sousa, the final speaker, is a senior planner and landscape architect with CDM Smith, which has its headquarters in Boston and an office in East Hartford. Instead of talking about development practices to minimize runoff, Sousa focused on “how to avoid it altogether.”
He advocated for compact urban redevelopment over “big box” stores with large parking lots. Not only does this give residents stores and restaurants they can get to on foot, by bicycle or mass transportation, “it also saves acres of green fields.”
“It’s being done in our communities,” he said, citing examples in Mansfield, Stamford and Middletown. “But it’s not being done enough.”
Redevelopment of urban areas, he said, creates communities that use fewer resources, which in turn is better for the environment.
“The carbon footprint of people in cities is so much less than those with suburban lifestyles,” he said. “With less vehicle miles traveled, there is less need for impervious parking surfaces, less stormwater flooding and less emissions. We need to think about ways to avoid using LID in the first place.”
Judy Benson is the communications coordinator at Connecticut Sea Grant. She can be reached at:email@example.com