Swapping Stormwater Stories

Addressing pollution in the Great Lakes will take a group effort.

By Zach Mortice

The Lake Michigan coast, on the South Side of Chicago. Photo by Zach Mortice.

In 2014 alone, 22 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater made its way into the Great Lakes, according to the Great Lakes Commission. On its way there, this stormwater degraded the rivers and streams it flowed through and caused flooding in areas where hard surfaces terminally halt its infiltration.

To deal with this regional calamity, the Great Lakes Commission and Lawrence Technological University have launched a new initiative to disseminate technology and techniques that can mitigate untreated stormwater pollution, the Great Lakes Stormwater Technology Transfer Collaborative.

This partnership between the Great Lakes Commission, a Michigan-based nonprofit that works to protect the ecology and economic health of the region in the United States and Canada, and Lawrence Tech’s Great Lakes Stormwater Management Institute will leverage the commission’s widespread industry contacts with the school’s technical expertise.

The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation provided $120,000 to fund the effort, which launched in November.

The collaborative is an effort to bring together the companies that develop stormwater technology with the municipalities, nonprofits, and conservation groups that want access to it; it’s a “matchmaking” effort, says Victoria Pebbles, the program director at the Great Lakes Commission.

“There’s a lot of technology out there that can help them address their water quality issues and address how they deal with stormwater,” says Donald Carpenter, a professor of civil engineering at Lawrence Tech, and director of the Great Lakes Stormwater Management Institute. “The problem is that a lot of them don’t know how to sort through all the noise.”

The Dequindre Cut recreational greenway in Detroit was formerly a rail line. New greenhouses and urban agriculture installations can be seen alongside the cut, along with new public spaces for visitors. Photo by Reilly Manz.

The collaborative aims to build a “regional-level conversation,” Pebbles says, that’s attuned to Great Lakes weather and ecology, especially its subzero winters and heavy snowfall. By convening these forums, Pebbles will be able to give Great Lakes communities guidance on ways, for example, to select permeable paving systems that work best in icy conditions, and how to stop city snow plows from inadvertently ripping up rain gardens after they’ve been obscured by snow. The effort will place special focus on small and medium-sized towns that can’t afford to hire staff exclusively dedicated to water quality and stormwater.

Pebbles says there are three primary types of solutions the collaborative wants to better define in the marketplace: constructed soft stormwater infrastructure such as rain gardens and bioswales, proprietary structural hardware such as permeable paving systems, and data-driven water management information systems that can remotely monitor the performance of drainage infrastructure. None of them is a panacea for communities looking to improve how they handle stormwater pollution. “The first thing for a community to do is understand what its needs are,” Pebbles says.

Diagnosing any town’s stormwater needs requires understanding its soil composition, hydrology, proportion of open space, existing stormwater infrastructure, and land uses. Regulatory requirements and building codes, such as parking ratio requirements, significantly affect the amounts of impermeable surface.

This initiative will focus on stormwater runoff because, Carpenter says, it’s lagged behind in “innovation and development,” a consequence of its relative invisibility compared to other types of water pollution. Unlike drinking water pollution or direct sewage infiltration, untreated stormwater from paved surfaces is a threat not easily defined or isolated. “People just don’t understand [it] as much,” Carpenter says. Standard engineering practices have made stormwater infrastructure and pollution largely invisible.

Flower vendors at Eastern Market in Detroit. Photo by Reilly Manz.

“One of the reasons we’re promoting innovation and green infrastructure is because it’s a cheaper way of dealing with it than these billion-dollar underground pipes, like in Chicago,” Carpenter says. (Chicago’s $3.6 billion Deep Tunnel stormwater reservoir system runs for 130 miles and is built to hold 41 billion gallons of water; it is said to be the largest such reservoir of its type.) Green infrastructure is often less intrusive, less expensive, and more energy efficient than these megafeats of engineering. And they require a dramatic shift in thinking about the ways infrastructure is deployed.

“We should be trying to mimic Mother Nature,” Carpenter says. “And Mother Nature did not put all the rainwater in one hole.”

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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