Research & Innovation

Rain, Rain, Flow Away

Stevens student team advances novel plan to filter out contaminants and prevent campus and street flooding in Hoboken

Stevens RainWorks team students on campus
Stevens seniors Zachary McKeehan, Adriana Herrera, Sabrina Smith and Taylor Race

Hemmed in by rivers and subject to ocean tides, Hoboken is no stranger to high water. Superstorm Sandy inundated the city from all sides, and other storms have also wreaked havoc on the city's flood-control infrastructure. Stevens' elevated, clifftop location poses additional challenges: much of the water raining onto campus runs directly down sidewalks and off hillsides, unfiltered and unabated.

But a Stevens senior design project, created by civil engineers Zachary McKeehan and Taylor Race, environmental engineer Adriana Herrera and engineering manager Sabrina Smith, is determined to capture rain on campus before it can create flooding below  — using natural elements and structures to do so.

And the student team's novel stormwater-containment plan was recently awarded second prize in the Master Plan Category of the Environmental Protection Agency's nationwide Campus RainWorks Challenge, a significant honor.

"You couldn't pay for a better plan from a consultant," says Stevens civil engineering professor Elizabeth Fassman-Beck, one of three faculty advisors to the team.

TREES, GRASS & PLANTS AS NATURAL FILTERS

The students' Living Laboratory plan complements the university's ten-year plan for improving infrastructure by cutting down on stormwater runoff and reducing the flow of toxic and undesirable fuels, chemicals, fertilizers and other substances into the Hudson.

Analyses by the team were informed by a quarter-century of weather data and rested upon the framework of the "first-ever hydrologic model of campus, which we built," says McKeehan. Those simulations revealed that the plan, fully implemented, would capture fully 20 percent of campus runoff year-round and cut the peak runoff rate by 11 percent during exceptionally heavy rainstorms.

"This is an innovative, maintainable, green-infrastructure solution that will make Stevens a better neighbor in Hoboken, reducing runoff into an already heavily taxed system," notes civil engineering professor Leslie Brunell, who is also advising the team.

The plan works by attacking vulnerable spots on and near campus, including the intersection of Eighth and Hudson streets, Wittpenn Walk, the campus lawn and areas adjacent to the S.C. Williams Library. The team proposes to address these trouble areas by installing environmentally-friendly innovations such as:

  • permeable paved areas that alternate paver stones with cracks filled with gravel chips, allowing stormwater to penetrate to a gravel bed that filters the water into surrounding soils;
  • strategically placed gardens and cisterns, acting as natural sponges and catch-basins, around campus;
  • and swatches of compost mixed into hard-soiled campus lawns to help capture and hold rain and meltwater.

In addition, several "green roofs" with rain-absorbing soils, grass and plants would be constructed atop campus structures such as the Howe Center, the campus pump house and the Burchard building.

"Green infrastructure is the key to this plan," notes Fassman-Beck, a leading international expert on green infrastructure technologies. "Most of the systems in it involve vegetation. They call this plan a 'living laboratory' for a reason: the engineered technologies evolve as plants grow."

"Trees and plants actually hold a tremendous amount of water," adds McKeehan.

The students' plan, while ecologically sound, is also grounded in hard engineering science. Team-created video and poster presentations explain the technical details, including digital modeling of water flow through the Stevens campus during storms, water-quality simulations, blueprints for design and comprehensive cost analyses.

"We often worked 40 hours a week on this," notes Herrera, who designed the team's graphics and will continue her Stevens studies as a graduate student in environmental engineering next year.

COMMUNITY IMPACT, LONG-TERM THINKING

In addition to campus officials, the city of Hoboken will be watching the project as well. That's because city officials have already begun building a pilot rainwater-containment project on one side of City Hall — one that incorporates cisterns and rain gardens similar to those in the Stevens team's designs. It's likely Stevens will be involved in that project in the very near future, as well.

"We can do something or do nothing," concludes Smith, who calculated the costs and water-treatment savings produced by the system. "We will spend anyway on existing systems. Our team is saying, 'why not install greener systems that, over the long term, will save money and improve the environment?' "

"This plan will have a long-lasting impact on the Stevens campus and local water quality," adds Race, "and it will provide a base model for future students to build upon. We were very happy to receive recognition from the EPA for our efforts."

Learn more about the award-winning Campus RainWorks project at the Stevens Innovation Expo Wednesday, April 27.