Sustainable Communities

MSU Study Finds Water Quality Overestimated


Storm-water management stakeholders in the coastal regions of Mississippi and Alabama overexaggerate the quality of natural waters in their areas, according to a recent MAFES study.

Conducted by landscape architecture assistant professor Timothy Schauwecker, the study found that many professionals interested in storm-water management techniques were a bit out of touch with the ebb and flow of precipitation runoff.

When it comes to managing storm water, many cities and municipalities across the United States use one of two mainstream techniques. Often, a city will funnel most of its storm water into large detention ponds, later releasing it back into creeks or streams. Alternatively, commercial business or housing developments will collect and release runoff water via ditches dug on site.

These types of management techniques often lead to water degradation in a municipality’s streams and lakes, causing adverse effects that creep all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Schauwecker pointed out the overuse of concrete ditches in many cities’ storm-water management systems as a marked flaw. Concrete rushes water out of an area, eliminating natural filtration and causing unneeded erosion downstream, he said.

"Everyone calls them ditches, but ditches are actually streams," Schauwecker said. "While looking at concrete ditches, you should think to yourself, "Is that what a stream ought to look like?" There’s not much life. They don’t really look the way a stream ought to look."

The mishandling of storm water can lead to an increase in foreign materials such as nitrogen, mercury, phosphorous and metals, all of which the EPA gauges to help determine the quality of a region’s natural water supply. The study, which drew from 70 respondents (mostly engineers) at storm-water management workshops, found that 40 percent of participants felt water quality was "good" in their coastal regions. The EPA rated the water quality in these areas of Alabama and Mississippi from "fair" to "poor" at a much higher rate than study respondents.

However, according to Schauwecker, change does not have to come with a high toll, and the key to change may lie within a process called water decentralization.

Decentralization occurs when landowners take control of storm water, slow down navigation processes and treat water closer to where it falls, thus leading to more immediate absorption and less downstream erosion and pollution. Decentralization tools include green roofs, rain gardens and bioswales.

The results of the study indicate that education is key in improving water quality and treating storm-water runoff.


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