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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.

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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.

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