Testing green solutions to overflow

By Karen A. Grava

In older cities like Hartford, water and sewer systems – often combined — that were originally built in the 1850s cannot handle current loads. So even modest rainfall can result in overflows that result in raw sewage being discharged into the Connecticut River and connected waterways such as the environmentally sensitive Long Island Sound.

Preventing the overflows is not only expensive but also extremely disruptive since traditional engineering solutions involve digging up roadways to separate the two systems and building underground storage tanks to contain overflows.

An interdisciplinary team of UConn scientists began this fall to analyze combined system overflows in two Hartford neighborhoods. The study is innovative in that it brings together faculty and students from civil and environmental engineering, transportation engineering, and the Department of Geography in CLAS to work on solutions that reduce overflows. The project has the support of eight community agencies.

The one-year, $125,000 project is funded by the UConn’s Center for Transportation and Livable Systems, and headed by Joseph T. Bushey, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Carol Atkinson-Palombo, assistant professor of geography in CLAS.

A former National Science Foundation Igert Fellow in urban ecology, Atkinson-Palombo believes strongly in inter-disciplinary approaches to problems and in providing students with interactive real-world problems.

One of the goals of the study is to look at the problem through a cross section of disciplines and to have students from a variety of fields participate in crafting solutions. The students will propose integrative environmental solutions and analyze their benefits and costs for the community.

“The results will be used not only in the field but also provide examples in the classroom,” Atkinson-Palombo says.

The team will identify and design “green solutions” such as rain gardens to capture the rainfall before it becomes runoff. They will also look into solutions that would reduce the amount of asphalt – to reduce runoff— by narrowing streets and building biking and walking trails. Residents in the surrounding community will then be surveyed to see which of the “green solutions” they would prefer to see implemented. Other stakeholders will also be interviewed to gauge their response to proposed solutions.

“Rain gardens may reduce runoff, but someone has to agree to maintain them to keep them free from leaves, debris, and garbage. Who will be responsible for maintaining these structures–local residents, the municipality, or local businesses?” Atkinson-Palombo says. “And how are any disputes to be resolved? All of these factors need to be considered before understanding what the solutions will be the most effective.”

The study is taking place in the Granby Street neighborhood and the Blue Hills neighborhoods of Hartford, both largely African-American. One is occupied mostly by homeowners of modest means and the other mostly by renters.

“The community has limited resources,” Atkinson-Palombo says. “Some green solutions might provide improved livability, but we need to know whether or not the community sees combined sewer overflow issues as a priority relative to other issues.”

Trained as an economist with undergraduate and master’s degrees from New York University, Atkinson-Palombo earned a Ph.D. in geography from Arizona State University where she was trained to approach problems with an interdisciplinary perspective.

“The interaction between people and the environment is very interesting. Environmental engineers build systems for people but traditionally have not been trained to engage the public in the process,” she says. Our project will look at both the engineering solutions and the stakeholders’ preferences for implementing various options. Everyone agrees that this is a problem, but we need to investigate this problem from multiple perspectives in order to determine the most effective solution.

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