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Gathering Storm

Bowden and colleagues hope 'redesigning American neighborhoods' offer economical and socially beneficial answers to the complex nationwide problem of stormwater pollution

By Kevin Foley Article published November 19, 2003

Breck Bowden
"Stream ecologists (including me) have traditionally studied pristine streams because we love babbling brooks, but increasingly we realize that's not where the problems are," says Professor Breck Bowden, who hopes to develop a national model for making decisions about polluted stormwater run-off. (Photo courtesy of Breck Bowden)

As cul-de-sacs replace cornfields, and driveways and gambrel roofs fill in forests, rain pours down through concrete gutters and culverts with a speed and intensity impossible in undeveloped areas. As the water rushes, it picks up fertilizer, fuel and pollution, and drops them in streams and, eventually, Lake Champlain.

Vermont’s belated reckoning with this so-called stormwater is commanding headlines, and one of the key areas of confrontation is South Burlington’s humble Potash Brook, a net of tributaries that touches the UVM campus and encompasses a range of suburban and urban landscapes. State and local agencies, environmental groups, developers and academics all have varying interests and projects around the brook, but Breck Bowden, the Patrick Chair in Watershed Science and Planning, wants to use the troubled waters for an experiment to begin redesigning the American neighborhood.

With a $225,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, Bowden and Alan McIntosh, professor of environment and natural resources, and colleagues from the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics, are going to embark on a project exploring the social, economic and environmental costs and benefits of different stormwater interventions at Dorset Farms, a South Burlington subdivision whose streams feed Potash Brook. The questions they hope to answer are fundamental: Does it make sense to try to fix stormwater problems at the neighborhood or single-house levels? Or is it better or more practical to step in miles away, perhaps by building a detention pond to stop large amounts of dirty water just before they hit the lake?

The group will analyze the biology and chemistry of the brook, consult with the neighborhood about their priorities and concerns, and build and test an appropriate demonstration intervention, which might involve changing the form of a stream running through the neighborhood or planting vegetation that could help retain and filter dirty water. The work will also lead to a decision-support tool or framework that could work in any watershed to help planners choose the best ways to step in and manage stormwater.

“People and their activities are the ultimate source of the factors that cause the impairments,” says Bowden. “So getting people to behave differently is another type of stormwater treatment.”

Listening and learning
At this early point, the project’s goals and priorities on the way to an ultimate goal of testing an intervention and developing decision tools are vague — and that’s exactly how Bowden and McIntosh want them. Changing behavior requires a commitment, and making a commitment requires playing a role in the decisions and analyses that lead up to it. So the Dorset Farm project will involve public input (and measure social costs and benefits) as well as scientific analysis.

“We need to understand more about how the pollutants are moving through the development,” says McIntosh. “We’re trying to collect as much information as we can about the neighborhood and the stream.”

The project will involve extensive neighborhood meetings, but at this stage, only a few preliminary conversations have taken place. But already, the results of those talks have surprised the scientists. Bowden thought the neighborhood’s key issues would be sedmiment in the brooks — but what he’s hearing from Dorset Farms neighbors is that they’re concerned about flooding in their backyards.

“Those two things are actually linked,” Bowden says. “We have to learn something about their flooding and what we can do about it, and they need to learn that the flooding is transporting things out of their backyard.”

Bowden, who was heavily involved in urban-suburban-rural watershed issues in New Zealand, is used to this kind of social outreach. McIntosh, who specializes in stream biology, is less familiar with working with individual homeowners. Both feel that the scope and direction of the project will be informed by the collaboration with the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, whose faculty offer additional expertise in public outreach and modeling of social and financial costs and benefits.

“The team is a happy coincidence, we have people with different approaches and backgrounds. This is an issue that requires people who are good with stream biology and chemistry, modeling and public response,” McIntosh says. “Once we do something in that community we need to identify that it’s made an improvement.”

Cost and progress
As the project’s title implicitly recognizes, the Dorset Farms group believes that tackling suburban runoff at its source is preferable environmentally and socially to trying to deal with matters miles downstream. They hope that South Burlington residents will buy into the plans that emerge from the planning sessions, and that the project will generate excitement. But they recognize that things may not work out that way.

“This is learn as we go,” says McIntosh. As the effort moves from the development, to the brook to the whole Lake Champlain watershed, he recognizes that local intervention may have too high of a practical and sociological pricetag.

So far, though, the neighborhood effort seems poised to use social and political levers to create larger stormwater solutions. The one-year EPA grant, which the group hopes will be renewed in subsequent years, is complemented by independent efforts and funding in the City of South Burlington and the Winooski Natural Resources District. Bowden also points out that another development is being planned for an area just south of Dorset Farms, and what he learns about stormwater dynamics and remedies could inform the design of the new subdivision.

The generic framework that will emerge from the effort could have influence far beyond Burlington. McIntosh says there are no similar mechanisms to guide planners through the process of focusing priorities and considering multiple plusses and minuses of various sorts of water interventions to come to final, solid decisions.

“That effort is unique, and if it works well, it could be a national model,” McIntosh says. “Governments all around the country could use it make legitimate, defensible decisions based on environmental, social and economic factors.”