Posted: December 3, 2015

Taking on the rising problem of stormwater runoff.

Credit: Penn Live

"What is it?"

"Stormwater runoff is one of the largest water-quality problems that we face in Pennsylvania."

My daughters, ages 3 and 5, stare; their eyes are wide. “It's the puddle of a lifetime!" I exclaim. “Let's get in!" The girls shriek with excitement as they plunge, fully clothed, into the bathwater-warm water.

More a lake than a puddle, the water, which has flooded the ball field at Orchard Park in State College, is about two feet deep and roughly the size of a basketball court. I relax in the grass at the lake's edge as my daughters play. After awhile, my younger one comes over to me, an earthworm dangling from her small fingers. “It's sleeping," she says. “Hmm," I answer. “Why don't you find a safe place for it to lie down?" One worm soon turns to dozens as my daughters “rescue" invertebrate after invertebrate and pile them onto a communal bed at the base of a tree.

Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer

As they work, I begin to think about what else might be in the water. Not the harmless, lifeless earthworms, but the potentially dangerous stuff—the lawn chemicals, fertilizers, dog feces, and who knows what else. I think about pulling my kids out of the water, but decide to let them stay. The benefits of this unique childhood experience outweigh the risks, I tell myself. To be safe, I call out, “Don't let the water get into your mouths!" Then I hope for the best.

The “puddle" that formed in Orchard Park was the result of severe thunderstorms that raged through the region during the night of July 17, 2015. That night, lightning struck two homes, causing devastating fires, and water flooded basements, yards, parks, and farm fields. The National Weather Service reported more than 3.5 inches of rain in some areas of Centre County.

I ask Matt Royer, director of the Agriculture and Environment Center at Penn State, about the lake that formed at Orchard Park. He says it likely did contain lawn chemicals, fertilizers, and dog feces. “It probably also contained oil and grease from cars and other dirt and grime from nearby roadways and parking areas," he says. “In big storms like this, eventually a portion of that runoff reaches local streams, carrying some of those pollutants with it."

Royer is one of many people in the College of Agricultural Sciences who is investigating safer, greener, lower-cost methods for dealing with stormwater and helping municipalities and private citizens to implement these methods on their properties.

“Stormwater runoff is one of the largest water-quality problems that we face in Pennsylvania," says Royer. “In fact, more than 19,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams and rivers do not meet water-quality standards, and pollution in stormwater runoff is one of the primary culprits."

Royer adds that the College of Agricultural Sciences is in a good position to help solve this problem throughout the state given its large number of experts on stormwater management and robust extension service that shares this knowledge with others. To learn more about these activities, I direct my attention to the state's largest and oldest city, which also has some of the largest and oldest stormwater problems.

Philadelphia's Stormwater Story

The first thing I learn is that Philadelphia, like many older cities, has a combined sewer system in which storm sewers feed into sanitary sewers. Thus, the city is affected by combined sewer overflows. In other words, during a heavy rainfall, the Philadelphia sewer system often becomes overwhelmed by excessive stormwater, causing the combined stormwater and sewage to bypass treatment and discharge into the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. Tom McCann, horticulture educator with Penn State Extension, tells me about it.

Tom McCann (left) and his team amended two existing green infrastructure retrofits located in the Overbrook neighborhood of Philadelphia. These included a bump-out system for reducing the speed and volume of stormwater along a curb edge, and a rain garden for holding volumes of runoff prior to its entering storm drains. Jerome Shabazz, Penn State Extension educator in agricultural entrepreneurship, is featured on the right. Photo credit: Ryan Smith

“It's a similar story all across America," says McCann. “Cities that were built more than 100 years ago are in need of redesign and repair. When sewer systems were originally built, there was less rain volume from rainwater flowing from streets, roofs, and pavements. These systems weren't designed to handle the large amount of impermeable surfaces—roadways, parking lots, and buildings—that now exist."

To encourage the city of Philadelphia, along with most other major cities in America, to reduce and ultimately stop any spillage of sewage into our delicate rivers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires them to develop and implement a long-term control plan. Fixing the problem, however, is tricky. “To divide the pipes would cost billions of dollars," McCann tells me. “I don't even know if they could do it."

Philadelphia Water is addressing overflow events due to large storms with an aggressive and innovative plan, known as “Green Cities, Clean Waters." This plan includes implementing green infrastructure—an approach to water management that protects, restores, and attempts to mimic the natural water cycle—in as many places as possible to slow the water down. Currently, the organization has implemented more than 600 green infrastructure interventions throughout the city. Philadelphia Water also charges a tax to all commercial properties that is based on the amount of square footage of impermeable surface of that property. With this tax, the organization is providing assistance and grant funding for commercial property owners to make changes to their properties to reduce the amount of impermeable surface and runoff from their sites.

“It's great that the EPA and the City of Philadelphia signed the Green City, Clean Waters agreement in 2011," says Jerome Shabazz, Penn State Extension educator in agricultural entrepreneurship. “This plan provides countless opportunities for universities and design professionals to work with the city to advance green infrastructure for urban wet weather pollution controls."

McCann and his colleagues at the Penn State Center Engaging Philadelphia are investigating ways to work with Philadelphia Water to find lower cost, innovative, and effective designs for reducing the overall volume of stormwater. In 2013, they coordinated with Philadelphia Water, the William Penn Foundation, Subaru America, the Overbrook Environmental Education Center, University City Green, and Penn State Public Media to produce a segment within the “Water Blues—Green Solutions" multimedia event. The segment highlighted a project in which McCann—along with Penn State landscape architecture faculty members and students, as well as corporate and nonprofit partners—helped to amend two existing green-infrastructure retrofits located in the Overbrook neighborhood of Philadelphia. These included a bump-out system, or vegetated curb extension that protrudes into the street for reducing the speed and volume of stormwater, and a rain garden for holding volumes of runoff prior to its entering storm drains.

“One of the unique roles that the college can play in Philadelphia," says McCann, “is creating opportunities for green infrastructure to be visually appealing. Philadelphia Water's primary responsibility is to make sure that their systems function properly, and aesthetics are not always a top focus. Community members do not always understand what these systems are and why they exist, and sometimes they look messy. Part of the role that Penn State can play is in education to the general public about the importance of green infrastructure while improving their aesthetics in the process. The hope is that eventually community residents will ask for these systems to be put into their neighborhoods, as opposed to saying, 'We don't like them, why are they here?'"

As a follow-up to the “Water Blues—Green Solutions" project, Philadelphia Water has reached out for further assistance in developing low-cost, innovative solutions. The bump-out system has particular issues around volume of water and oil particulates. Penn State Extension and the Department of Landscape Architecture are working together on an experimental solution to this problem.

Greening Pittsburgh

On the other side of the Commonwealth, staff members in the college are taking a crack at solving another large city's stormwater problems, where the issues, at least in the past, have been more devastating than just water pollution.

Lisa Vavro, sustainable environments manager at the Penn State Center Engaging Pittsburgh, tells me a story. On August 19, 2011, she says, a storm dumped more than 2 inches of water in one afternoon on the east end of Pittsburgh. “As it rained, a mother and her two daughters, ages 8 and 12, were stopped in rush-hour traffic on Washington Boulevard in the Highland Park neighborhood. With nowhere else to go, the rainwater rose up, rapidly covering the street in 9 feet of water. Unable to escape their minivan, the mother and daughters drowned. Another woman, attempting to exit her car, was swept away to her death."

The Penn State Center Engaging Pittsburgh designed and implemented the Four-Mile-Run Demonstration Stormwater Mitigation project, which was completed in the summer of 2012. From left to right: Lisa Vavro, sustainable environments manager; Carla Lukehart, landscape architect; and David Himes, program associate, landscape design, all at the Penn State Center Engaging Pittsburgh. Photo credit: Rob Larson

Vavro's story haunts me for days as I imagine my own children trapped inside a water-filled car. I can't believe so much water could inundate an area so quickly. It turns out, says Deno De Ciantis, Penn State Extension district director for Allegheny County and director of the Penn State Center Engaging Pittsburgh, the topography of the land is the leading factor contributing to the frequent flooding on Washington Boulevard. “There are a couple of roads that slope down to Washington Boulevard, and the convergence of all these slopes and streets causes significant problems with stormwater," he tells me.

De Ciantis, Vavro, and colleagues are spearheading a project along Washington Boulevard to divert the stormwater so that it percolates into the ground instead of rushing into the street and, ultimately, the sewer. “The project should mitigate about 8 million gallons of stormwater a year," says De Ciantis. “Unfortunately, 8 million gallons likely would not have made much of a difference in the quantity of water that entered Washington Boulevard in 2011 in such a short amount of time; however, if several of these types of installations had been utilized, then there may have been a different outcome."

The team has designed a 1,100-foot bioswale—a sloped drainage course filled with rocks and vegetation that soaks up water and pollutants—along Negley Run Boulevard, which slopes into Washington Boulevard. The team also has designed a bioretention garden to be placed at the end of the bioswale. The project, which broke ground on September 9, 2015, is one of several demonstration projects, from rain gardens to bioswales to green roofs, that the team has worked on throughout Pittsburgh.

large-persp02-medium-.jpgBaldwin High School Tiered Bioretention Project. Designed by David G. Himes, landscape designer, Penn State Center Engaging Pittsburgh, the bioretention garden utilizes curb channels, rain gardens, permeable paving, and a biofiltration system called focalpoint to capture and retain stormwater from adjacent streets. Water volume that exceeds the site's capacity will be filtered prior to being discharged into the existing storm sewer. The site covers slightly less than 5,000 square feet and is projected to recover 200,000 gallons of water per year. Photo courtesy of Lisa Vavro

According to Vavro, Penn State is among the best institutions for this work because its staff has research expertise and knowledge of best management practices, which can include identifying the best location for a rain garden and knowing which native plants to install, for example. Once a project is in place, the team monitors its performance, collecting a wealth of data on the effectiveness of the installation. So far, Vavro says, the projects have been very successful at diverting stormwater and keeping pollutants out of streams.

Helping the public to understand the value of the green infrastructure projects is another goal of the team. “We're Penn State, so of course education is always part of the puzzle," says Vavro. “Through our demonstration projects, as well as the various workshops that we hold, we are trying to educate professionals to utilize green infrastructure and the general public to appreciate green infrastructure."

De Ciantis adds, “Having a number of these projects around the city allows people to touch and see and feel them so they can judge for themselves what their value is, not only to stormwater mitigation, but also to the community in terms of beautification, air quality, and quality of life, in general."

Finally, De Ciantis and Vavro work with the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County on public-policy issues related to stormwater mitigation projects. “One of the problems is that these projects cost money," says De Ciantis. “We are helping them to understand the real costs of stormwater mitigation projects. We are also helping them to work out who will manage the installations and what kinds of regulations they will have to employ, such as ensuring that the projects are installed to code and conducting periodic inspections."

large-eeco-finalplan.jpgThe Environment and Energy Community Outreach (EECO) Center Stormwater Mitigation Demonstration Garden. This stormwater mitigation demonstration garden was created to educate and advocate for better management of our natural resources. The green infrastructure featured in the EECO Center Stormwater Mitigation Demonstration Garden in Pittsburgh's Larimer neighborhood—bioswales, pervious concrete sidewalks, permeable pavers, a demonstrative rain garden, native plants, and a rain cistern—help to mitigate stormwater overflow and other serious environmental issues. Photo courtesy of Lisa Vavro

Moving into Towns and Suburbs

Green infrastructure is effective at reducing stormwater volume and pollutants, and it enhances community safety and quality of life.

In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, staff members in the college are assisting officials with meeting their Clean Water Act requirements, but it's not just the big cities of Pennsylvania that are struggling. “Municipalities throughout the state are required to address stormwater problems under federal Clean Water Act regulations," says Royer. “Small urbanized areas are now regulated, which can include small boroughs and townships, and that's hitting a lot of municipalities hard because they don't have adequate funding, experience, or resources to deal with these things. There's an opportunity here for the college to play a role in helping communities through this web of regulations."

A municipality regulated under the Clean Water Act must have a permit for its MS4 (municipal separate storm sewer system)—which includes all the pipes, inlets, outlets, and land that feed into its stormwater system. That requires the municipality to develop a robust community-wide stormwater-management program, including outreach to the public. Here, Penn State Extension has played a key role in providing municipalities with outreach and education programming on green infrastructure.

Certain municipalities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed also are faced with mandates to reduce pollution to the watershed from existing stormwater runoff. This means developing and implementing a pollution-reduction plan. In Dauphin, Lebanon, and Lancaster Counties, the Agriculture and Environment Center has developed a public/private partnership—including county conservation districts; landstudies, Inc., a private ecological consulting firm; and local conservation organizations—to involve Penn State Extension educators, students, and volunteers in implementing green infrastructure practices in communities through its “Greening the Lower Susquehanna" program. Statewide, Penn State Extension Master Gardeners have launched a “Green Gardens, Clean Water" campaign to train Master Gardener volunteers in developing educational programing for homeowners on rain garden design and installation.

Homeowner's Guide to StormwaterThe college also helps organize volunteers to install green infrastructure projects, holds workshops to educate the general public, and has even created a homeowner's guide to stormwater. The guide helps homeowners understand what stormwater is, recognize where stormwater is generated on their properties and where it flows, and understand how to implement best management practices on their properties.

This ability to communicate with the public about stormwater is one of the college's strengths, says Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. “Penn State Extension has people working in every one of the state's 67 counties," he says. “They provide an outlet for distributing the information, so we have the ability to get the word out to a lot of people. We also have strong expertise about how to do all this, not just in our college, but across the University as a whole."

A Solution for State College

The municipal requirements to address stormwater are faced by the community surrounding campus as well, and Royer and his colleagues are at work in the area, partnering with the Borough of State College and others to improve the quality of water that enters streams. One of their more recently completed projects is a demonstration rain garden at Easterly Parkway Elementary School. There, Royer and his team, including Penn State students, along with State College borough staff and several volunteers, dug out the area at the bottom of the slope between the school and Easterly Parkway. They filled the area with compost, raked it smooth, and planted it with native plants.

“Not only does the garden help to reduce stormwater runoff from the school grounds, but the process of building it also gave our undergraduate students some experience in designing and installing a rain garden," says Royer. “And the students and parents of Easterly Parkway who helped also learned a lot. It was a wonderful opportunity."

Back at Orchard Park, the low-level flooding that sometimes occurs is a bit of a thorn for the Borough of State College. I go to Amy Kerner, borough engineer, to find out more. “The ball fields at Orchard Park are in a detention basin," she says. “It was built in the 1980s as one of the first dual-use basins." But with increased development, the volume of stormwater it receives is now greater.

To update the detention basin, borough staff members are considering implementing a green infrastructure project at the other end of Orchard Park. And they are doing it with the help of the college's students. In 2014, students in the class “Design of Stormwater and Erosion Control Facilities," taught by Heather Gall, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, designed a solution for the park. They provided a design concept for the area adjacent to the intersection at Blue Course Road and Bayberry Road, where the pipes go under Blue Course Road. The aim was to provide a rain-garden-style filter for the stormwater before it made its way to the detention basin.

“The goal is to implement the class's design, but we have to program the money and verify the design before it can be implemented," Kerner tells me.

It's a nice idea, I think, but I'd almost rather see the field permanently flooded. After all, the public swimming pools in State College are crowded. But if the basin must drain, I certainly am glad that it will be as clean as it can be after the new filter is installed. Like every one else, I care about our water quality. And I'm comforted by the knowledge that the college's researchers, extension educators, and students are putting so much effort into keeping our water clean and safe, not just locally, but throughout the entire Commonwealth.

State College Stormwater Detention Basin Project
The Borough of State College transformed this stormwater detention basin into a functioning wetland area and open space, with native wetland plants and a walking trail. In late October, the Agriculture and Environment Center (AEC) partnered with the borough to offer a stormwater education and volunteer maintenance day at the site, called the Westerly Parkway Wetland Education Center. From left to right: Alan Sam, environmental coordinator/arborist, Borough of State College; Kelly Doyle, environmental AmeriCorps member, Borough of State College; Matt Royer, director of AEC, Penn State; and Emily Newman, senior undergraduate majoring in environmental resource management and an intern at AEC, Penn State. Photo credit: Michael Houtz

—Sara LaJeunesse