Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Low Impact Development’ Category

Soil Moisture Sensors: Why TDR vs. Capacitance May Be Missing the Point

Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) vs. capacitance is a common question for scientists who want to measure volumetric water content (VWC) of soil, but is it the right question?  Dr. Colin S. Campbell, soil scientist, explains some of the history and technology behind TDR vs. capacitance and the most important questions scientists need to ask before investing in a sensor system.

TDR vs. Capacitance

TDR began as a technology the power industry used to determine the distance to a break in broken power lines.

Clarke Topp

In the late 1970s, Clarke Topp and two colleagues began working with a technology the power industry used to determine the distance to a break in broken power lines.  Time Domain Reflectometers (TDR) generated a voltage pulse which traveled down a cable, reflected from the end, and returned to the transmitter. The time required for the pulse to travel to the end of the cable directed repair crews to the correct trouble spot. The travel time depended on the distance to the break where the voltage was reflected, but also on the dielectric constant of the cable environment.  Topp realized that water has a high dielectric constant (80) compared to soil minerals (4) and air (1).  If bare conductors were buried in soil and the travel time measured with the TDR, he could determine the dielectric constant of the soil, and from that, its water content.  He was thus able to correlate the time it took for an electromagnetic pulse to travel the length of steel sensor rods inserted into the soil to volumetric water content. Despite his colleagues’ skepticism, he proved that the measurement was consistent for several soil types.

TDR vs. Capacitance

TDR sensors consume a lot of power. They may require solar panels and larger batteries for permanent installations.

TDR Technology is Accurate, but Costly

In the years since Topp et al.’s (1980) seminal paper, TDR probes have proven to be accurate for measuring water content in many soils. So why doesn’t everyone use them? The main reason is that these systems are expensive, limiting the number of measurements that can be made across a field. In addition, TDR systems can be complex, and setting them up and maintaining them can be difficult.  Finally, TDR sensors consume a lot of power.  They may require solar panels and larger batteries for permanent installations. Still TDR has great qualities that make these types of sensors a good choice.  For one thing, the reading is almost independent of electrical conductivity (EC) until the soil becomes salty enough to absorb the reflection.  For another, the probes themselves contain no electronics and are therefore good for long-term monitoring installations since the electronics are not buried and can be accessed for servicing, as needed.  Probes can be multiplexed, so several relatively inexpensive probes can be read by one set of expensive electronics, reducing cost for installations requiring multiple probes.

Many modern capacitance sensors use high frequencies to minimize effects of soil salinity on readings.

Advances in Electronics Enable Capacitance Technology

Dielectric constant of soil can also be measured by making the soil the dielectric in a capacitor.  One could use parallel plates, as in a conventional capacitor, but the measurement can also be made in the fringe field around steel sensor rods, similar to those used for TDR.  The fact that capacitance of soil varies with water content was known well before Topp and colleagues did their experiments with TDR.  So, why did the first attempt at capacitance technology fail, while TDR technology succeeded? It all comes down to the frequency at which the measurements are made.  The voltage pulse used for TDR has a very fast rise time.  It contains a range of frequencies, but the main ones are around 500 MHz to 1 GHz.  At this high frequency, the salinity of the soil does not affect the measurement in soils capable of growing most plants.  

Like TDR, capacitance sensors use a voltage source to produce an electromagnetic field between metal electrodes (usually stainless steel), but instead of a pulse traveling down the rods, positive and negative charges are briefly applied to them. The charge stored is measured and related to volumetric water content. Scientists soon realized that how quickly the electromagnetic field was charged and discharged was critical to success.  Low frequencies led to large soil salinity effects on the readings.  This new understanding, combined with advances in the speed of electronics, meant the original capacitance approach could be resurrected. Many modern capacitance sensors use high frequencies to minimize effects of soil salinity on readings.  

TDR vs. Capacitance

NASA used capacitance technology to measure water content on Mars.

Capacitance Today is Highly Accurate

With this frequency increase, most capacitance sensors available on the market show good accuracy. In addition, the circuitry in them can be designed to resolve extremely small changes in volumetric water content, so much so, that NASA used capacitance technology to measure water content on Mars. Capacitance sensors are lower cost because they don’t require a lot of circuitry, allowing more measurements per dollar. Like TDR, capacitance sensors are reasonably easy to install. The measurement prongs tend to be shorter than TDR probes so they can be less difficult to insert into a hole. Capacitance sensors also tend to have lower energy requirements and may last for years in the field powered by a small battery pack in a data logger.   

In two weeks: Learn about challenges facing both types of technology and why the question of TDR vs. Capacitance may not be the right question.

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

New Infiltrometer Helps City of Pittsburgh Limit Traditional Stormwater Infrastructure

Though difficult and expensive to repair, the brick-paved streets that still exist in some Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania neighborhoods are worth saving. Dellrose Street, an aging, 900 ft. long, brick road, was in need of repair, but the city of Pittsburgh wanted to limit traditional stormwater infrastructure, such as pipes and catch basins.

Infiltrometer

Dellrose Street permeable paver system

To save the aesthetics of the neighborhood, they hired ms consultants, inc. to design a permeable paver solution for controlling stormwater runoff volumes and peak runoff rates that would traditionally be routed off-site via storm sewers.  Jason Borne, a stormwater engineer for ms consultants who worked on the project says, “What we try to do is understand the in situ infiltration potential of the subsoils to determine the most efficient natural processes for attenuating flows; either through infiltrating excess water volume back into the soil or through slow-release off-site.”  He used the SATURO Infiltrometer to get an idea of how urban fill material would infiltrate water.

Green Infrastructure Aids Natural Infiltration

As Borne and his team investigated what they could do to slow down the runoff, they decided permeable pavers would be a viable solution.  He says, “There’s not much you can do once you put in a hardened surface like a pavement.  Traditional pavement surfaces accelerate the runoff which requires catch basins and large diameter pipes to carry the runoff off-site. We were interested in investigating what some of the urban subsoils, or urban fill would allow us to do from an infiltration perspective.  As we started looking at some of these subsoils, we decided a permeable paver system would be ideal for this particular street.”

Infiltrometer

Subsurface flow barrier installation

Infiltrometers Determine Natural Infiltration Potential

Once the water flowed into the aggregate, the team began to figure out ways to slow it down and promote infiltration.  Borne says, “Basically we came up with a tiered subsurface flow barrier system.  We had about 60 concrete flow barriers across the subgrade within the aggregate base of the road. We needed so many because the longitudinal slope of the road was fairly significant. Behind each of these barriers we stored a portion of the stormwater that would typically run off the site.  The ideal was to remove the stored water through infiltration–to get it down to the subgrade and away, so we used infiltrometers to help us establish where we could maximize infiltration and where we might need to rely on other management methods.”

A Need for Faster Test Times Inspires a Comparison

Borne says that USDA soil surveys are too generalized for green infrastructure applications in urban areas and only give crude approximations of the soil hydraulic conductivity. Understanding the best way to promote natural infiltration requires a very specific infiltration rate or hydraulic conductivity for the location of interest.  He says, “The goal is to excavate down to the desired elevation before construction and find out, through some kind of device what the infiltration potential of the subsoil is.  Typically we use a double ring infiltrometer, but it’s a very manual device. We’re constantly refilling water, and it requires us to be on-site and attentive to what’s happening.  We can’t really multitask, especially in areas of decently infiltrating soils where the device might run out of water in 30 minutes or less. So, in the interest of saving water and time, we used the automated SATURO infiltrometer and the manual double ring infiltrometer concurrently for comparison purposes.”

Next week:  Find out how the two infiltrometers compared.

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Top Five Blog Posts in 2016

In case you missed them the first time around, here are the most popular Environmental Biophysics.org blog posts in 2016.

Lysimeters Determine if Human Waste Composting can be More Efficient

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

In Haiti, untreated human waste contaminating urban areas and water sources has led to widespread waterborne illness.  Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) has been working to turn human waste into a resource for nutrient management by turning solid waste into compost.  Read more

Estimating Relative Humidity in Soil: How to Stop Doing it Wrong

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

Estimating the relative humidity in soil?  Most people do it wrong…every time.  Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell shares a lesson on how to correctly estimate soil relative humidity  from his new book, Soil Physics with Python, which he recently co-authored with Dr. Marco Bittelli.  Read more.

How Many Soil Moisture Sensors Do You Need?

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

“How many soil moisture sensors do I need?” is a question that we get from time to time. Fortunately, this is a topic that has received substantial attention by the research community over the past several years. So, we decided to consult the recent literature for insights. Here is what we learned.

Data loggers: To Bury, or Not To Bury

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

Globally, the number one reason for data loggers to fail is flooding. Yet, scientists continue to try to find ways to bury their data loggers to avoid constantly removing them for cultivation, spraying, and harvest.  Chris Chambers, head of Sales and Support at Decagon Devices always advises against it. Read more

Founders of Environmental Biophysics:  Champ Tanner

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

Image: http://soils.wisc.edu/people/history/champ-tanner/

We interviewed Gaylon Campbell, Ph.D. about his association with one of the founders of environmental biophysics, Champ Tanner.  Read more

And our three most popular blogs of all time:

Do the Standards for Field Capacity and Permanent Wilting Point Need to Be Reexamined?

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

We asked scientist, Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell, which scientific idea he thinks impedes progress.  Here’s what he had to say about the standards for field capacity and permanent wilting point.  Read more

Environmental Biophysics Lectures

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

During a recent semester at Washington State University a film crew recorded all of the lectures given in the Environmental Biophysics course. The videos from each Environmental Biophysics lecture are posted here for your viewing and educational pleasure.  Read more

Soil Moisture Sensors In a Tree?

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

Soil moisture sensors belong in the soil. Unless, of course you are feeling creative, curious, or bored. Then maybe the crazy idea strikes you that if soil moisture sensors measure water content in the soil, why couldn’t they be used to measure water content in a tree?  Read more

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Data Logger Dilemma: To Bury, or Not to Bury–An Update

Recently, we wrote about scientists who were burying their data loggers (read it here).  Radu Carcoana, research specialist and Dr. Aaron Daigh, assistant professor at North Dakota State University, used paint cans to completely seal their data loggers before burying them in the fall of 2015.

data logger

Paint can setup for buried data logger.

They drilled ports for the sensor cables, sealed them up, and when they needed to collect data, they dug up the cans, retrieved the instruments, and downloaded the data in a minute or less.  

Here Radu gives an update of what happened when he dug up his buried instruments in the spring.

Results of the Paint Can Experiment

In May of this year, we dug up eighteen units (one data logger and four soil moisture sensors per unit) left in the field since November 2015–over six months.

Did moisture get into the paint cans? –We found only three cans with water in them, purely due to installation techniques used for that specific unit. The other fifteen units were bone dry, although total precipitation for the month of April only amounted to 3.63 inches, plus the snow melt.

How was data recording and recovery? — For six months, every 30 minutes the soil moisture sensors took readings, the data logger recorded, and we retrieved all of the data, complete and unaltered.

data logger

Only three cans with water in them, due to installation techniques.

What about power consumption? The batteries were good – over 90% did not need replacement. The power budget provided by 5 AA batteries was more than enough for reading four soil moisture sensors at 30 minute intervals.

What Happens Now?

In the spring of this year, we installed 18 more units in the third farm field, right after planting soya. We now have 36 individual units (~$1,000 value each unit) buried in the ground in the middle of a field planted with corn or soybean, since the beginning of May.

On October 13-14 (after 5 months), we accessed the first twelve units (Farm A). All 30 minutes of data was read, recorded, and downloaded (since May).  The batteries and the other accessories were replaced, and then we sealed and reburied the cans. Only one unit out of twelve had an issue and was replaced: the battery exploded in the can (editor’s note: battery explosion is usually caused by a manufacturing defect and the risk can be lessened by purchasing higher quality batteries, although all types are susceptible to some degree).  Since battery leakage will often corrode everything the acid touches, the data logger had to be sent back for repair and there may be partial data loss. The other 24 units (Farm B and C) will be accessed next week, weather permitting.

data logger

Over 90% of batteries did not need replacement.

Is the Paint Can Method Worth it?

We will continue to monitor and retrieve the data from the buried data loggers (We don’t use data loggers suited for wireless communication, because several factors guided us not to). The paint can system works very well if the installation is done correctly, with great attention to detail, and it costs only $2.00/can. However, there are improvements that could be made in order to have this method become a standard in soil research. For instance, though we are still using paint cans and other common materials, advancements in the design of waterproof containers and sturdiness would be a huge step forward. This is just a well thought out concept – a prototype. It proves that burying electronics for a longer period of time can be done if properly executed.

Note:  METER’s (formerly Decagon) official position is that you should never bury your data logger.  But we couldn’t resist sharing a few stories of scientists who have figured out some innovative methods which may or may not be successful, if tried at other sites.

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Which Factors Make Rain Gardens More Effective? (Part 2)

Scientists often evaluate Low Impact Development (LID) design by quantifying how much stormwater rain garden systems (cells) can divert from the sewer system.  But Dr. Amanda Cording and her research team want to understand what’s happening inside the cell in order to improve the effectiveness of rain garden design (see part 1).  Below are the results of their research.

Rain Garden

Deep rooted systems were found to have a much better ability to hold the soil in place and remove nutrients.

Key Findings

Cording says that some of her key findings were that the soil media and vegetation selection is absolutely crucial to the performance of these systems. Cording’s team looked at the root layering perspective in three dimensions and found that deep rooted systems were found to have a much better ability to hold the soil in place and remove nutrients throughout the life cycle of the cell. The more surface area the roots covered, the more pollutants the cell would remove.  She adds, “Cells with deep-rooted plants were found to be resilient during increased precipitation due to climate change, did well at retaining peak flow rates, and performed well at removing total suspended solids and nutrients predominantly associated with particulates.”  Labile nutrients, Cording says, were a completely different story. She says the bioretention systems have to be specifically designed to remove  those nutrients through sorption (P) and denitrification (N).

Rain Garden

Compost was found to have a negative effect on water quality.

Compost, which is often used as an organic amendment in the soil media to help remove heavy metals and provide nutrients for the plants, was found to have a negative effect on water quality overall, due to the high pre-existing labile N and P content. She says, “It’s intuitive, but at the same time, a lot of these systems are designed based on bloom time and color, and not necessarily on the physical and chemical pollutant removal mechanisms at work.”

Rain Garden

Green algal bloom in a small freshwater lake in New Zealand. (Image: Massey University)

What Lies Ahead?

Cording also tested a proprietary bioengineered media in two of her cells which was designed to remove the phosphorous that causes algal blooms in the rivers and streams.  She says, “It did a phenomenal job. There was very little phosphorous coming out compared to the traditionally-designed retention cells.  Cording, who is now based in Honolulu and works for an ecological engineering company called EcoSolutions, is looking at how to use natural, highly-leached iron rich soils, to get a similar amount of phosphorous removal, and how bioretention can be designed with anoxic storage zones to remove nitrate via denitrification. She says, “These nutrients can be easily removed from stormwater with a little conscious design effort and a splash of chemistry.”

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Which Factors Make Rain Gardens More Effective?

Low Impact Development (LID) is an approach to development (or re-development) that mimics pre-development hydrology and uses ecological engineering to remove pollutants in stormwater and wastewater so it can be reused or replenish groundwater supplies. Examples of LID features include porous pavement, constructed wetlands, green roofs, and rain gardens. LID stormwater bioretention systems such as rain gardens have been proven to work, but are they designed as effectively as they could be?  Dr. Amanda Cording (formerly at the University of Vermont) and her team wanted to understand which design factors would make rain gardens more resilient, increase phosphorus adsorption, and reduce nitrates.

Rain Gardens

Cording and her team wanted to understand what was happening inside bioretention cells.

What’s Happening Inside?

Scientists often evaluate LID design by quantifying how much stormwater the systems (cells) can divert from the sewer system.  But Cording and her team wanted to understand what was happening inside the cell.  They wondered which types of soil media and infrastructure would optimize a stormwater bioretention system’s ability to improve water quality.  She says, “We wanted to gather water quality information coming in and going out of the system. I designed inflow and outflow monitoring infrastructure to measure nutrient and sediment pollution.”   The system monitored pollution by sampling stormwater runoff from a paved road surface before and after it went through bioretention cells. Each cell was constructed with different features to test the influence of vegetation and soil media on pollutant removal capabilities.

Rain Gardens

Bioretention cells at the newly constructed Bioretention Laboratory at the University of Vermont.

Methods Used

To understand what was happening within eight bioretention cells at the newly constructed Bioretention Laboratory at the University of Vermont, Dr. Cording and her team investigated the mechanisms influencing greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient transformations at various depths in engineered soil media. In addition to using her own monitoring infrastructure, Dr. Cording used soil moisture sensors to measure water content within the soil media. She says, “I was comparing different vegetation treatments while simulating increased precipitation due to climate change in the Northeast.  I put the soil probes in at 5 cm  and 61cm, one on top of the other.  Then I looked at the way the EC and the volumetric water content (VWC) changed prior to a storm event, during a storm event, and after a storm event.”

Rain Gardens

One of the team’s bioretention cells at the University of Vermont.

Cording says the EC and VWC sensors allowed them to get a general sense of what was happening inside the cell over time.  She adds, “I used the data when I needed to know more of the story, such as how the conductivity at the surface compared to other depths so we could see if the nutrients in the soil were migrating, and how much was moving down.  We were also able to use the sensors to compare the VWC around the roots of different vegetation types. It provided a lot of insight into the dynamic world that exists below the soil surface.”

Next Week:  Read about the team’s key findings and what lies ahead for this research.

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Green Roofs — Do They Work? (Part II)

Innovative soil scientist, John Buck, and his team have discovered that green roofs have more capacity than people imagined (see part I).  Below are some of the challenges he sees for the future, and the type of measurements he suggests researchers take, as they continue to validate the effectiveness of these urban ecosystems.

Green roofs are essentially gardens on rooftops, which store water and help prevent sewage overflow.

A green roof is essentially a garden on a roof, but rather than growing plants in soil, installers use a synthetic substrate made of expanded shale, expanded clay, crushed brick, or other highly porous, lightweight material.

New Challenges for Green Roofs

Green roof results are promising, but they present a new challenge:  making sure the plants have enough water. The crux of the challenge is that the lightweight, expanded shale/clay substrate material, the standard in green roof design, does a good job of soaking up the water, but has some peculiar properties that are unlike typical soils.  Specifically, the expanded shale and expanded clay media tend to be dominated by sand and fine gravel-sized particles that provide a high proportion of macropores, but the interior porosity of the large particles is dominated with micropores.  That pore size distribution leads researchers to two important questions— How much water will be readily available for plant growth? And, will the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity be adequate to avoid starving the roots under high-evaporative demand by allowing water to flow to roots from the bulk soil? These are critical questions as green roof technologies continue to evolve.

Green Roofs

Researchers wonder, will the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity be adequate to avoid starving the roots under high-evaporative demand.

Measurements Required for Green Roof Validation

Still, Buck has learned a great deal from his work.  Considering the wild spatial distribution of summer storms, quantitative green roof performance studies require that rainfall be measured locally. Monitoring of soil volumetric moisture content measurements in concert with rainfall and soil lysimeter measurements of drainage, reveal the degree of total and capillary saturation, drainage rate, and porosity available for storage. Soil water potential sensors, placed within the capillary fringe of water ponded over subsurface drainage layers, can provide useful insights regarding the dryness of the drainage layer and overlying soil, as well as the available storage of stormwater within the drainage layer.

Direct measurement of soil drainage using lysimeters is a key supplemental measurement on green roof performance quantification projects because there is an unmeasured component of water storage where drought-resistant alpine succulents (typically Sedum species) are used on green roofs.  The Sedum plants can absorb up to 10 mm of rainfall equivalent in their plant tissues.

Green Roofs

Measurement of soil drainage using lysimeters is a key supplemental measurement on green roof performance quantification projects.

Other Projects and Future Plans

At ground level, Buck is quantifying the performance of intensive stormwater infiltration areas known as rain gardens, bioretention areas, or more generically, infiltration-based stormwater best management practices (Infiltration-based BMPs).  When monitoring infiltration-based stormwater BMPs, Buck has used similar tools to those used on green roofs, but has added water-level sensors and piezometers.  Buck has found that ancillary measurements of electrical conductivity, often available on water content sensors, along with surface and pore water sampling, can be used to document transformations taking place in infiltration systems.  These measurements now combine to show that green roofs and infiltration-based BMPs are indeed making a difference to urban environments and contributions to CSOs.  The challenge now is how to implement this technology more widely.  But, with the validation now in hand, that job should be quite a bit easier.

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Green Roofs–Do They Work?

Green roofs are being built in large cities to provide stormwater management, reduce the urban heat island effect, and improve air quality—but are they effective?   John Buck, an innovative soil scientist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has been trying to quantitatively answer this question in many different cities using soil monitoring equipment in order to determine the efficacy and best types of green infrastructure for managing stormwater.  

Green Roofs

A green roof installation site at the Allegheny County Office Building in Pennsylvania.

Why Green Roofs?

In older cities, stormwater runoff is typically combined with sewage flows, and these combined waters are treated at a sewage treatment plant during dry weather and light rain events. Unfortunately, during more substantial storms (sometimes just a few mm of rain) the combined flows exceed the ability of the sewage treatment plant, and are discharged without treatment to surface waters as “combined sewage overflows” (CSOs). One of the ways to mitigate CSOs is to capture and store stormwater to keep it out of the combined sewer.  

A green roof is essentially a garden on a roof, but rather than growing plants in soil, installers use a synthetic substrate made of expanded shale, expanded clay, crushed brick, or other highly porous, lightweight material with high infiltration rates.  During a storm event, water will soak into the air-filled pore space in the substrate, which acts like a sponge to soak up the rain. Excess water will flow into a subsurface drainage layer and will leave the roof garden via existing roof drains. Because a substantial fraction of the stormwater is stored in the substrate, it can later dissipate through evapotranspiration instead of contributing to stormwater volume and CSOs.

Green Roofs

Researchers are using soil moisture sensors for measuring temperature, bulk electrical conductivity and volumetric water content in green roofs and green infrastructure.

Finding Answers

Designers and regulators want to know how well green roofs work and if they are being over-engineered. They want answers to questions such as— “What sort of substrate should I be using? What type of plants can survive green roof conditions? Will I need to irrigate the green roof when there are no storms to water the plants?” and, “Will the green roof work as well during a one-inch storm that occurs in one half hour versus a five-inch storm that occurs over five days?”  

Buck is using soil lysimeters and modified tipping bucket rain gauges to measure the quantity, intensity, and quality of water coming into and going out of the green roofs.  He also tracks weather parameters and calculates daily evapotranspiration of landscapes.  Using soil sensors, he measures electrical conductivity (dissolved salts), volumetric water content, and temperature.  He has installed data loggers that send data to the web via GSM cellular connection, allowing stakeholders access to the data in real-time.  This data telemetry provides additional data security, immediately updated results, instant feedback of system problems, and an easy way to share data with others.

Green Roofs

Visualized data of the 87% annualized runoff reduction at Phipps Conservatory green roof site in Pittsburgh, PA.

What Has Been Learned?

Buck discovered that green roofs have much more capacity than people ever imagined.  At The Penfield Apartments in St. Paul, Minnesota, the green roof retained enough water to reduce runoff to about half of a conventional roof, and the peak intensity of the runoff was about one-quarter of what it would have been without the green roof.  At Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, there was an 87% annualized runoff reduction and almost no runoff from typical summer rain events.  Buck comments, “Interestingly, on the Penfield project, we expected better hydrologic performance where soils were thicker, but there was no difference, or results were slightly the reverse of expectations. That reversal was likely due to the confounding influence of irrigation, which was probably non-uniform and not metered or measured by the rain gauge.”

Next week:  Read about some of the challenges John Buck sees for the future, and what kind of measurements he suggests researchers make, as they continue to validate the effectiveness of these urban ecosystems.

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Low Impact Design: Sensors Validate California Groundwater Resource Management

Michelle Newcomer, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, (previously at San Francisco State University), recently published research using rain gauges, soil moisture, and water potential sensors to determine if low impact design (LID) structures such as rain gardens and infiltration trenches are an effective means of infiltrating and storing rainwater in dry climates instead of letting it run off into the ocean.

Low impact design

Can Low Impact Design Structures store rainwater?

Low Impact Design Structures

Global groundwater resources in urban, coastal environments are highly vulnerable to increased human pressures and climate variability. Impervious surfaces, such as buildings, roads, and parking lots prevent infiltration, reduce recharge to underlying aquifers, and increase contaminants in surface runoff that often overflow sewage systems. To mitigate these effects, cities worldwide are adopting low impact design (LID) approaches to direct runoff into natural vegetated systems such as rain gardens that reduce, filter, and slow storm water runoff. LID hypothetically increases infiltration and recharge rates to aquifers.

low impact design

Infiltration and Recharge

Michelle and the team at San Francisco State University, advised by Dr. Jason Gurdak, realized that the effects of LID on recharge rates and quality were unknown, particularly during intense precipitation events for cities along the Pacific coast in response to inter-annual variability of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Using water potential and water content sensors she was able to quantify the current and projected rates of infiltration and recharge to the California Coastal Westside Basin aquifer system. The team compared a LID infiltration trench surrounded by a rain garden with a traditional turf-lawn setting in San Francisco.  She says, “Cities like San Francisco are implementing these LID structures, and we wanted to test the quantity of water that was going through them.  We were interested specifically in different climate scenarios, like El Niño versus La Niña, because rain events are much more intense during El Niño years and could cause flash flooding or surface pollutant overflow problems.”

low impact design

Sensors Tell the Story

The research team looked at the differences in the quantity of water that LID structures could allow to pass through.  Michelle says. ”The sensors yielded data proving LID areas were effective at capturing the water, infiltrating it more slowly, and essentially storing it in the aquifer.”  The team tested how a low-impact development-style infiltration trench compared to an irrigated lawn and found that the recharge efficiency of the infiltration trench, at 58% to 79%, was much higher than that of the lawn, at 8% to 33%.

low impact design

Rain Gauges Yield Surprises

Though it wasn’t part of the researchers’ original plan, they used rain gauges to measure precipitation, which yielded some surprising data.  Michelle comments, “We were just going to use the San Francisco database, but it became necessary to use the rain gauges because of all the fog.  The fog brought a lot of precipitation with it that didn’t come in the form of raindrops.  As it condensed on the leaves, it provided a substantial portion of the water in the budget, and that was surprising to me.  The rain gauge captured the condensate on the funnel of the instrument, so we were able to see that a certain quantity of water was coming in that is typically neglected in many studies.”

Future El Niño Precipitation

Michelle also found some really interesting results regarding El Niño and La Niña.  She says, “I did a historical analysis to establish baselines for frequency, intensity, and duration of precipitation events during El Niño and La Niña years.  I then ran projected climate data  through a Hydrus-2D model, and the models showed that with future El Niño intensities, recharge rates were effectively higher for a given precipitation event. During these events, in typical urban settings, water runs off so fast that only these rain gardens and trenches would be able to capture the rain that would otherwise be lost to the ocean. This contrasts with a La Niña climate scenario where there’s typically less rain that is more diffuse. Most of that rain may eventually be lost to evaporation during dry years.  So using sensors and 2D modeling we have validated the hypothesis that LID structures provide a service for storing water, particularly during El Niño years where there are more intense rainstorms.”

Michelle’s research received some press online and also was featured in the AGU EOS Editor’s spotlight.   Her results are published in the journal Water Resources Research.

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

%d bloggers like this: