University of Vermont

RAN: Redesigning the American Neighborhood Project

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Life Cycle Assessment of Urban Stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs)

Barton Kirk, Master's thesis research project in Natural Resource Planning at the University of Vermont, 2006

As a result of more stringent water quality standards, aggressive stormwater management is being applied in developed and developing watersheds. To achieve stormwater control, a host of structural and non-structural Best Management Practices (BMPs) are being recommended and applied prescriptively, with little or no regard about their net consequences for the environment.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology can be used to systematically evaluate the direct, indirect, and long-term adverse impacts of human activities, including urban stormwater management systems. Using an LCA approach may provide a more complete quantification of the environmental benefits of employing specific storm water BMPs and a clearer sense of which aspects of stormwater management are most destructive.

As part of the RAN project, LCA was used to compare the following conventional and low-impact development (LID) BMPs under evaluation at the performance verification center in New England: a subsurface treatment and storage unit; a retention (wet) pond; a bioretention cell; and a subsurface-flow gravel wetland. The life cycle inventory data from these evaluations were applied to site specific management scenarios using the U.S. EPA's TRACI assessment tool and were normalized and weighted according to U.S. EPA values to demonstrate how LCA data can be used for storm water design and management decision-making.

The assessment results indicated that the gravel wetland was the most consistently superior BMP; however, none of the four BMPs distinguished themselves as superior across all environmental and economic impact categories; thus, some form of subjective valuation is necessary to rank or choose from among the systems.

This pioneering study has provided key building blocks for future stormwater life cycle assessments by broadening the range of impacts to be considered when designing stormwater management systems. For designers, decision-makers, and agencies committed to achieving environmental quality and sustainability goals, findings from this study could result in a considerable expansion of the definition of performance used to evaluate BMPs for design, planning, and regulation.

Prior to his Master's work in The Rubenstein School at the University of Vermont, Barton completed his BS in Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Penn State University. He is currently employed as an Ecological Engineer/Researcher at SEEDS in Pittsburgh, PA.

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Last modified October 16 2009 12:37 PM

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