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MU’s stormwater best management practices focus of undergraduate research

A Mizzou Advantage undergraduate research grant gave five students a chance to investigate stormwater best management practices on the MU campus. It included a hands-on field day to install a weir — to aid in the measurement of water quality — at Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute. From left to right with shovels in their hands, are project participants Arndt Gossel, Jared Tate, Brenna Thomas, and Will Scheidt, who is helping out. At far right is Enos Inniss, an assistant professor and a project mentor. With her back to the camera is Renee Martin, an environmental consultant.

A diverse group from across campus came together this semester to sponsor an undergraduate research project looking into stormwater best management practices at the University of Missouri. The student team is laying groundwork to evaluate existing projects in preparation of data collection that will be used to inform future decisions. It is hoped the effort will eventually launch a preeminent student stormwater program under the umbrella of engineering’s Water Resource Center.

Federal regulations require MU — in chorus with the City of Columbia and Boone County — to protect water quality in the Hinkson Creek watershed through use of best management practices (BMPs) that will detain and filter rainwater runoff. A number of BMP control technologies have been implemented to deal with the non-point source pollutants carried into the creek whenever there is a “rain event” but no hard data have been collected to measure their levels of effectiveness.

BMP control technologies include water detention features such as check dams, bio-swales and rain gardens, as well as things like specially designed pervious pavement treatments.

Associate Research Professor Robert Reed, who works with the Water Resource Center and MU’s Center for Sustainable Energy,  and a number of other faculty and staff saw potential in a partnership between Mizzou’s Campus Facilities personnel and the “academic side of the house” to study  MU’s work to achieve federal compliance, and to build a national reputation for stormwater management at the university.

The idea perked along, but the ubiquitous obstacles of time and money prevented interested parties from moving forward until what Reed calls, “a convergence of opportunity” occurred.

In 2010, the university identified its five most competitive assets and launched the Mizzou Advantage initiative to increase MU’s visibility and stature by focusing on key strengths. Research proposals were solicited from MU faculty for projects that would build momentum for the initiative and in the fall of 2010, program coordinator LuAnne Roth encouraged Reed to apply for funding for student stormwater management internships.

It wasn’t until a chance conversation that included hearty encouragement from Pete Millier, director of landscape services with MU Campus Facilities, that Reed and three other MU faculty members took the plunge with their undergraduate research proposal, “Stormwater Best Management Practices Monitoring.”

Millier said that landscape services has a vested interest in seeing that MU is at the forefront of innovation to fulfill the need for sustainable landscapes.

Allen Thompson, associate professor of biological engineering serves as principal investigator for the project. And in addition to Reed, Enos Innis, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, and Robert Broz, an extension assistant professor with agricultural engineering, round out the mentoring team.

Five undergraduate students were selected from the pool of applicants, including Aubrey Fine, a junior in soils, environmental and atmospheric sciences, who said, “I thought that working with a team of mentors and other students would be beneficial for my first research experience, and was also interested in working with engineers.”

The students spent the semester researching and educating themselves about BMPs and the issues involved in stormwater management, laying groundwork for what research team leaders hope becomes a long-term program.

“Hinkson Creek is listed on the 303(d) impaired waters list of the Clean Water Act and has the source of pollution listed as urban runoff,” said Brenna Thomas, a biochemistry major working with the group. “I decided that the stormwater project would give me an opportunity to help our entire community right now.”

Thompson said students got to see the practical nature of planning by visiting existing rain gardens and asking questions.

“They are learning that it is a balance between treatment and aesthetics. There’s more to it than design and implementation. There’s also maintenance,” he said.

In late April, the students had a chance to “get dirty” on a water quality project at the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute in southwest Columbia where monitoring systems were being installed.

“I’m sure the students thought they would be doing a lot more of that kind of work when they started this project,” said Inniss who accompanied the undergraduates to the site. “Without actually generating data, they don’t know how to gauge their performance. But the more you know, the better off you are and we want to take more time to study our options.”

Arndt Gossel, a biological engineering junior who grabbed a shovel and helped install the weir — a small overflow dam that will be used to measure the nutrients and sediment entering a lake on the institute property — said he has enjoyed the project because it provided a different approach to learning than going to lectures and doing homework.

“Being able to work with other people gives good insight on how you will really be acting as engineer,” Jared Tate, a junior in civil and environmental engineering, said. “I am doing something that a civil engineer in the every day world is doing.”

The group is looking toward the installation of BMPs for an impending facility construction project on the east side of the campus. The project could include the installation of monitoring systems at the same time bioswales and rain gardens are put in place allowing for immediate and constant monitoring. They intend to apply for a Clean Water Act Section 319 grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to fund the work associated with monitoring this and other BMPs in the area.

“The goal is for students to maintain measurements, with students educating other students, telling them ‘Here’s an opportunity to do something on campus,’ ” said Thompson “We’d like to see it perpetuate itself. This is a population who grew up with ‘green’ and now they’re doing something about it.”

Joe Wiedemeier, a senior civil engineering student said he believes it’s MU’s responsibility to do this work and set example for everyone in the state.

Reed supports his viewpoint. He said that though work is being done around the country to manage stormwater, in Missouri it hasn’t been broadly tackled. He sees the development of a program at MU as exactly what the Mizzou Advantage initiatives have set out to accomplish, raising the university’s stature and benefitting students with excellent learning experiences that will translate into great jobs.

“To make BMPs an acceptable practice, you have to show they work,” Millier said. “If we can be at the forefront, why not? We are the major research university in the state.”

“This undergraduate research project has us all talking and working together,” Reed said.