Multi-disciplinary Team of UMD Researchers Seeks to Improve Bay Health and Social Justice with Best Practices in Urban Stormwater Management

Research to study social and ecological components of urban decay in relation to stormwater management with implications for urban flooding, green space, and pollution

Wildflowers growing in a Baltimore vacant lot

February 14, 2019 Samantha Watters

UMD researchers with backgrounds in ecology, landscape architecture, environmental justice, and bioengineering are coming together to examine all sides of a complex issue - urban stormwater management. Researchers are looking at water quality across two major watersheds in Washington, DC and Baltimore city to see how stormwater management decisions interact with urban green space and landscapes across different socioeconomic gradients. Differences in the community and the varying ecological injustices such as vacant lots, broken sewers, trash, and mosquitoes all impact how residents perceive green space, as well as how to work within and better their communities to implement strategies that prevent flooding, mosquito infestations, and provide environmental benefits to the Chesapeake Bay. Excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment associated with urbanization pollutes the water supply and is a threat to water quality across the globe. With this work, researchers are partnering with the communities to determine what are the best ways to tackle these issues.

“This research combines both basic and applied science with outreach education in a really unique way,” explains Paul Leisnham, associate professor in Environmental Science & Technology. To this effect, the team is looking at built environments and the effects that urban stormwater have on the greater region and our natural resources in the Chesapeake Bay, all as part of an interconnected socio-ecosystem. This work fits in perfectly with the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) program, recently renamed CNH2: Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems. With Leisnham as the lead investigator, the team has been awarded $1.5 million for this work through this grant program.

“We are modeling pollution hot spots in natural systems, testing best stormwater management practices, and examining symptoms of unhealthy environmental states, including flooding and excessive mosquito abundances,” explains Leisnham. “This is coupled with human systems - how residents manage private and public green space across different economic and demographic backgrounds. Lower income neighborhoods may have a lot of vacant lots, and we want to determine if they have more unmanaged areas characterized by invasive plants, low biodiversity, and poor aesthetics, which may be related to flooding issues, crime, and pollution. How might we intervene to break that cycle? Can we develop effective outreach programs to turn those unmanaged areas into managed green space like a rain garden that mitigates flooding and infiltrates and redirects rainwater?”

Leisnham adds, “This sort of big challenge requires people from diverse disciplinary backgrounds and expertise. As a team of researchers, we are all interested in how human and natural systems interact, from the individual household, to communities, all the way up to policy. This is at the heart of the land-grant mission of the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources and the University of Maryland. Baltimore, in particular, is a city that lives with a long legacy of environmental injustice, so this project is a wonderful opportunity for our team and college to play a humbling role in trying to mitigate that injustice as much as possible.”

Leisnham has assembled a diverse team to address each key component of the project. Victoria Chanse, associate professor in Plant Science & Landscape Architecture, is leading the first objective in this project, understanding needs and issues in the communities. Sacoby Wilson, associate professor with the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health in the School of Public Health is looking at environmental justice and the challenges of vacancies and unmanaged green space with Leisnham. In the second objective, Leisnham is leading the effort based on his expertise in mosquito ecology to look at how they perform under different habitat gradients, examining how effectively different management practices infiltrate stormwater and allow or don’t allow the breeding of pests and disease-carrying species. Leading the third objective, Hubert Montas, associate professor in the Fischell Department of Bioengineering, is working with Adel Shirmohammadi, professor and associate dean in AGNR, to develop a geographically-based decision-support tool that will help water resource managers, community organizations, and regulatory agencies develop locally and regionally appropriate strategies to sustain water resources under different socio-ecological scenarios. This tool is based on predictive modeling of pollution hot spots in the two watersheds.

Finally, the fourth objective involves the actual dissemination and implementation of intervention strategies to mitigate flooding and improve stormwater management practices. Amanda Rockler, watershed restoration specialist and senior agent with UMD Extension and the Maryland Sea Grant Program, is working with community partners to develop a comprehensive education and communication strategy. Partners include the Anacostia Watershed Society, which runs a Watershed Stewards Academy with UMD Extension, Maryland Sea Grant to teach interested citizens about urban stormwater and nutrient management. In Baltimore, researchers are working with the Parks and People Foundation and Blue Water Baltimore. Along with a partnership with Maryland Sea Grant through the UMD Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), these associations will help build trust with the community and ensure education and outreach is appropriately messaged.

“People are immediately concerned about mosquitoes and flooding, but they can’t see the nitrogen and phosphorus in the water,” explains Leisnham. “But we know that all those challenges are there, so connecting those things together educationally is really important.”

The team feels it is critical to look at the social aspects of environmental issues. “Many environmental issues are really social issues,” says Leisnham. “We often have the technological know-how to solve an environmental problem, but it is various social factors, such as poor distribution of economic resources, lack of knowledge, or misplaced attitudes that present the main barrier to success. With urban stormwater, it is really about partnering with individual households and communities to acknowledge how both privately-owned and public lands affect the wider community and the cumulative loading of nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay. If we want to try to affect change, we really need to understand the often complex and interacting social factors driving that to tailor our educational messages.”