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Water-Related News

USF researchers secure $1.5M federal grant to reduce runoff, improve water quality

The goals of the grant are to improve water quality and reduce runoff into Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of South Florida is working to protect the environment by preventing pollution from seeping into a local stormwater pond that flows into Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Through a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the team, which includes the University of Florida, is installing a bio-infiltration system at Aaran’s Pond in Tampa’s University Area Community, where more than one in three residents live below the federal poverty level.

The nearby stormwater drains are filled with litter, such as cans, shoes and plastic.

According to principal investigator Professor Sarina Ergas in the USF Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, when it rains, the water washes pollutants, such as fertilizer, oil, animal waste and rotting vegetation into gutters, which then feed into an existing stormwater pond. For that reason, urban runoff is a challenging problem to address in underserved communities, especially as stormwater ponds are often full of trash and difficult to clean due to restrictive fencing and steep slopes.

“We’re calling them inert zombies due to their lack of life,” Ergas said. “If you look at the difference between a stormwater pond in a wealthy neighborhood and one in a low-income neighborhood – it’s day and night in terms of how they benefit the community.”

If those pollutants are not removed from the ponds, they eventually cascade into the Hillsborough River and Tampa Bay, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. Nutrients, such as nitrogen, create harmful algal blooms, kill sea grass and reduce oxygen in the water.

The team is partnering with Oldcastle Infrastructure to install four new bio-infiltration systems around the pond to improve the nutrient removal. The systems will retain and treat the runoff water with biochar, a charcoal-like material that will help reduce the nutrient pollution and increase microbial activity and plant growth.

Previous studies with biochar have taken place in the lab, making this the first time it’s used in a pond to improve water quality.

The USF team is collaborating with Mary Lusk, a University of Florida expert in stormwater ponds and their functions, to redesign the pond with the Hillsborough County Engineering and Operations Department. The plan is to plant bio-infiltration systems with shrubs and bushes along the steep slopes to provide additional filtration and make the pond more visually appealing.