Students Provide Expertise for Stormwater Plan

Studies of urban runoff and its affects on the local environment result in some very practical solutions for a small city in Iowa
Students Provide Expertise for Stormwater Plan
University of Iowa graduate students from the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities who researched stormwater in Decorah, Iowa (left to right): Elizabeth Minor, Bailee McClellan, Vanessa Fixmer-Oraiz, and Romeo Abraham. Faculty advisors (not pictured) were Lucie Laurian, associate professor of Urban and Regional Planning, and Phuong Nguyen, assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning. The IISC matches community needs with the expertise and resources of the University of Iowa facul

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Every community is dealing with stormwater management and ways to fund added expenses it brings to cash-strapped budgets. As he develops a strategy for Decorah, Iowa, City Manager Chad Bird has been getting help and expertise from the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities (IISC) at the University of Iowa.

Graduate students and faculty advisors spent nine months in 2014 researching stormwater at no cost to the city other than some out-of-pocket expenses. Bird says the team helped define the issues and identify solutions covering two main topics, “How we best manage stormwater quality — contaminants that enter our rivers — and how we manage stormwater quantity that inundates an aging infrastructure.”

The students’ report was presented in May and Bird is using it to develop a stormwater management plan for the city of 8,100.

Not an academic exercise
“It was very hands-on,” says team member Elizabeth Minor, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa School of Urban & Regional Planning. “It required working with a lot of partners and departments in the city to get the information we needed and engage the community in the way we wanted.”

The team conducted town hall meetings and included the public in some of its field work.

“They put on their boots, grabbed flashlights and crawled through some of our tunnels and culverts to look at our aging infrastructure,” Bird says. “They did a lot of leg work. You can’t understand how stormwater moves by looking at maps and charts.”

One component that determines how runoff moves through Decorah is Dry Run Creek. As its name implies, it is normally a dry creek bed that runs through town. “It wasn’t really clear where it ran, so we walked the creek,” Minor says. “That’s how we figured out that it was mostly sourced by stormwater.”

Much of the creek is hidden by culverts under streets and parking lots. “It can be kind of invisible,” she says. “We were trying to get people to understand the connection between stormwater, different water pollution issues, and the creek they live around and how it connects to the Upper Iowa River. While the river has been the focus of a lot of rural water monitoring projects, Dry Run Creek had not really previously been tested, especially not in regards to determining the urban area's contribution to water quality.”

The group teamed with the biology department at Luther College in Decorah for sampling, testing, and water quality analysis to strengthen the local ties to the project. “The battery of data lends the scientific element to the recommendations,” Bird says. “Having that local flair helped.”

The study identified best practices, such as cleaning up the creek bed for stormwater detention and natural filtering, and made recommendations for filtering, retaining, and reducing stormwater runoff at five locations. “We have a large street project looming,” Bird says. “The City Council is really sold on the idea of turning the boulevards into bioswales and rain gardens that will help improve water quality.”

Stormwater utility recommended
One of the group’s recommendations was a stormwater utility to fund the ongoing work. While controversial in many communities, Bird says having it come from the university probably helped lend credibility.

“About 55 percent of survey respondents were in favor of it,” says Bird. They were also asked how much they were willing to pay, $3, $5, or $6 a month. “The majority chose the $5 monthly fee.” The actual fee has not yet been decided upon.

“I think generally people understand that it’s a problem that’s not going away,” notes Bird. “The pinch on tax dollars is tighter and tighter and when you can assess this user fee to otherwise tax-exempt entities, it shares the burden. I think people get that.”

Eager to lend a helping hand
Nick Benson, director of Community Development and Outreach for IISC says the Decorah stormwater project was one of 11 sustainability initiatives the organization is conducting with the city and Winneshiek County. “Often, city staff are so busy with their work at hand, innovative projects of interest can sit on the back burner,” Benson says. “Graduate students are really great because they have a lot of knowledge and they have new creative ideas.”

Minor adds that Decorah is a small city and was stretched in terms of resources. “As students learning new techniques, we were excited to get out and do a real project so we were very gung ho. They were very open to our ideas and plans, so we really had a lot of flexibility to make the project what we wanted.”

She thinks the study can be a template by other small communities. “It’s an outline for how one can approach such a project. We discuss in detail the processes we used for the mapping analysis and water monitoring we did. We’re hoping that detail is something other communities can use.”



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