By: Cassidy Delamarter, University Communications and Marketing
An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of South Florida is working to protect the environment by preventing pollution from seeping into a local stormwater pond that flows into Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Through a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the team, which includes the University of Florida, is installing a bio-infiltration system at Aaran’s Pond in Tampa’s University Area Community, where more than one in three residents live below the federal poverty level.
Illegal dumping at Aaran's Pond
Littered stormwater drain
According to principal investigator Professor Sarina Ergas in the USF Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, when it rains, the water washes pollutants, such as fertilizer, oil, animal waste and rotting vegetation into gutters, which then feed into an existing stormwater pond. For that reason, urban runoff is a challenging problem to address in underserved communities, especially as stormwater ponds are often full of trash and difficult to clean due to restrictive fencing and steep slopes.
“We’re calling them inert zombies due to their lack of life,” Ergas said. “If you look at the difference between a stormwater pond in a wealthy neighborhood and one in a low-income neighborhood – it’s day and night in terms of how they benefit the community.”
If those pollutants are not removed from the ponds, they eventually cascade into the Hillsborough River and Tampa Bay, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. Nutrients, such as nitrogen, create harmful algal blooms, kill sea grass and reduce oxygen in the water.
The team is partnering with Oldcastle Infrastructure to install four new bio-infiltration systems around the pond to improve the nutrient removal. The systems will retain and treat the runoff water with biochar, a charcoal-like material that will help reduce the nutrient pollution and increase microbial activity and plant growth.
Previous studies with biochar have taken place in the lab, making this the first time it’s used in a pond to improve water quality.
The USF team is collaborating with Mary Lusk, a University of Florida expert in stormwater ponds and their functions, to redesign the pond with the Hillsborough County Engineering and Operations Department. The plan is to plant bio-infiltration systems with shrubs and bushes along the steep slopes to provide additional filtration and make the pond more visually appealing.
“We strongly believe the efforts undertaken by this project, along with our collaboration in its implementation, will result in positive, long-term benefits for our community,” said Sarah Combs, chief executive officer of the University Area Community Development Corp., which focuses on the redevelopment and sustainability of at-risk areas surrounding the USF Tampa campus. “As partners, we share in the goal of leveraging resources to improve human and environmental health and the social well-being of residents who live in the community.”
With help from graduate students, Wells will survey nearby residents to develop strategies that respond to the needs of the community. The information will be used to enhance recreational opportunities and improve the residents’ access to green space with new features, such as picnic tables, walking trails and a park.
Graduate student Serena Echols looks forward to the community outreach. “This aligns with my passion for placekeeping native populations of people and plants so their stories are not forgotten nor unconsidered when redevelopment occurs.”
“Looking toward the future, five years from now, I don’t see a polluted stormwater pond. Instead, I see a beautiful lake surrounded by trees and a bustling park filled with children and their families learning about the importance of university-community partnerships that create positive change.”
“Looking toward the future, five years from now, I don’t see a polluted stormwater pond,” Wells said. “Instead, I see a beautiful lake surrounded by trees and a bustling park filled with children and their families learning about the importance of university-community partnerships that create positive change.”
In the process, Wells said USF students and faculty are building capacity for environmental justice and equitable development that can create healthy, sustainable and economically vibrant communities. The team hopes this project will serve as a model for stormwater ponds in the future after the three-year project concludes.
This project is led by USF researchers Sarina Ergas, Mauricio Arias, Mahmood Nachabe, Qiong Zhang, James Mihelcic and Christian Wells, Mary Lusk from the University of Florida, the University Area Community Development Corp., the Hillsborough County Engineering and Operations Department, Oldcastle Infrastructure and Sunshine Organics and Compost.