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Campus & Community

Clearing Up the Runoff

New Smart Sensors to Provide Real-Time Picture of Campus Stormwater

By Liam Farrell and Maya Pottiger ’17, M.Jour. ’20

Chris Davis installs a sensor in a stormwater drain

Photos of Davis, sensor by Emma Howells; photo of Hendricks by Tara Burke

Chris Davis, performing field technical service with Lower 48 Instruments, installs a sensor in a stormwater drain on campus last week for research led by Marccus Hendricks, assistant professor of urban studies and planning (below). At bottom, Davis installs green "cards" in the sensor, which will detect data on the velocity and the components of the water moving above.

New sensors installed outdoors across campus last week will provide important data about the University of Maryland’s environmental impact and are expected to put the institution in the forefront of stormwater analysis.

Marccus Hendricks installing stormwater sensorThe sensors are part of a cross-campus project led by Marccus Hendricks, an assistant professor in the UMD School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, in collaboration with colleagues from the National Center for Smart Growth, the College of Information Studies, the Clark School of Engineering, Facilities Management, and Arboretum and Landscape Services, and more.

Purchased through a $43,000 grant from the University Sustainability Fund, the sensors will provide a real-time look at the quality and quantity of stormwater runoff from campus by measuring everything from depth and temperature to the amount of dissolved oxygen.

“The data gives a sense of what’s out there, and then we can make informed decisions about the types of green infrastructure, the types of restorations that can be implemented in terms of treating that water on campus and improving the quality of the water,” Hendricks said.

Three sensors—each a small box with assorted cables and finger-like probes—were installed near the A.V. Williams Building, the School of Public Health Building and the intersection of Baltimore Avenue and Campus Drive. Those places have the biggest water flows, deposit into Paint Branch and Campus creeks, and historically have had higher levels of copper, said Jason Baer, assistant director of UMD’s Office of Environmental Affairs in the Department of Environmental Safety, Sustainability and Risk.

While stormwater management has typically revolved around preparing for 50- or 100-year-type storms, the sensors will give a day-to-day look at how UMD’s infrastructure is performing, Baer said. Using the sensors along with existing campus weather stations will put the university on the “leading edge” of stormwater analysis.

“We have the ability now to evaluate weather and its impacts on a hyperlocal level,” he said.

The smart sensors will essentially turn College Park into a “living laboratory” for identifying and addressing stormwater problems and provide an opportunity to test what modifications will be effective, Hendricks said. Under Environmental Protection Agency requirements, by 2025 UMD has to retrofit 20% of its untreated impervious surfaces, such as parking lots and sidewalks, so water is filtered through more green space or natural features, like bioswales and porous pavements, and other types of treatments and restorations.

Stormwater sensor being assembled“Campus is a unique opportunity as a testing site and a minilab,” he said. “The university has every type of land use that most major or smaller cities have.” 

Hendricks said this effort will also pay dividends as jurisdictions across the country confront more intense and frequent storms caused by climate change.

“We’re at a critical time in terms of sustainability and resilience to address a number of global environmental problems,” he said. “As a university that lauds itself on being innovative and being conscious in light of the environment, we should be the leaders.”

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