You could go swimming right now, but you didn’t necessarily plan on it. You knew it was going to rain, but did you expect giant puddles to swallow the sidewalk, the road or your shoes for that matter? In this beautifully constructed city that we call home, the last thing that we think about is its imperfection. Ann Arbor, new and old, consists of aesthetic, impressive architecture and infrastructure that not only meets the logistical demands of the city, but also perfectly complements the abundant natural scenery that surrounds it. Nevertheless, what if I told you that’s not good enough?

When vast puddles form after one mild rain in areas around campus that are frequently occupied by foot traffic, one consequence, among many, of an ineffective stormwater system becomes completely obvious. The design of our current stormwater and sewer systems pertain to past observations of precipitation and land use which have evidently shifted over time with changing climate and urbanization. Thus, what we can truly recognize is that the city of Ann Arbor has always considered molding public infrastructure in a way that best suits the needs of the times. Now, it’s time that it continues taking steps toward executing plans to renovate infrastructure in a way that supports the University of Michigan’s goals for sustainability while maintaining strong output in all important economic sectors. Perhaps more importatly, strong infrastructure and the removal of excess stormwater has exponential effects for our environment, particularly when it comes to preventing erosion and water contamination. 

In order to do this effectively, the city has to have a particular mentality already reflected in those who specialize in environmental and urban sustainability. Branko Kerkez, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is the leader of a national research team organized under the National Science Foundation’s Smart & Connected Communities program. This team is composed of researchers from various other institutions who are investigating the use of smart stormwater systems in reducing flooding and improving water quality. In essence, Kerkez is looking to improve the functionality of current stormwater systems by implementing sensors and other autonomous technology to enhance system capacity during large storm events. However, rather than completely replace old infrastructure, Kerkez emphasizes the benefits and practicality of implementing green infrastructure into existing infrastructure: “Instead of saying new and expensive construction is our only option, can we use what we have in a better way?”

The sensors being developed by the research team are multifaceted to account for all aspects of water passing through a stormwater system. In essence, they will run on real-time control systems that allow a stormwater system to enable flood control with a detention basin as well as to enable water quality control with a retention basin based on the precipitation conditions present. The research team expresses confidence that the hybridization of these stormwater system sites will benefit the quality of the water and the health of the overall surrounding ecosystem, claiming that temporarily converting a detention basin to a retention basin and vice versa can increase the removal efficiency of total suspended solids by 60 percent. In addition, sensors will control the function of above-ground and underground valves for the system to most effectively regulate groundwater flow and measure moisture and water quality at any given time. As a result, retrofitting existing stormwater systems with cost-effective smart technology will give the overall stormwater system an adaptive capability to constantly redesign itself in response to changing weather conditions.

With this newly designed system providing clear benefits for water quality and several advantages to the functionality of stormwater systems, it’s natural to agree with the efforts of Kerkez and the research team in implementing sensor technology to enhance this aspect of the city; However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy for all of us to agree with efforts like these. While we as a generation have come across countless opportunities to improve the quality of our surrounding environment, we have always felt some reluctance toward seizing them because they often involve a change in lifestyle or an advancement that feels like it could be too advanced for what we’re used to. In other words, while it is natural to pursue in life what is morally correct, it is perhaps even more natural to remain stagnant and live life how we’ve always done it. I believe this closed-mindedness is what is undermining our local and global environment as we speak.

Thankfully, the governing bodies of the University have recognized the importance of adjusting our infrastructure to suit the environmental demands of the times — teams from Facilities & Operations are currently in the process of installing a stormwater infiltration system on Central Campus near the Diag, where the massive ponds of water collect during rains. However, many institutions and industrial corporations everywhere have failed to take similar strides toward managing their infrastructure effectively in relation to the environment. Showing that we care about creating a healthier environment in accordance with a more efficient infrastructural design is only half of the journey, and, for most, it’s the only half that we have control over. So we can leave it to Kerkez and the professionals to execute these ideals that are progressing toward sustainability, but it’s important that we instill these ideals into our professionals and authorities with an urgency that makes them prevalent and necessary to be addressed so that we as a society can progress our environmental and economic sectors equally.

Kianna Marquez can be reached at kmarquez@umich.edu.

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