A University of Tennessee, Knoxville, study on how trees affect water runoff in urban areas is fully underway, thanks in part to students at West High School in Knoxville.
The concept—Storm Water Goes Green: Investigating the Benefit and Health of Urban Trees in Green Infrastructure Installations—was initiated with $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Service.
From the beginning, team leaders realized that having a strong community presence would be critical to the success of the project, leading them to team with the Water Resources Research Center (WRCC) and the Knox County Adopt-A-Watershed Program. In doing so, the team gained the involvement of area high school students, introducing them to concepts relating to water quality and how humans impact it.
“We have a critical need to understand how the natural environment can impact water quality, which in turn can lead to better planning,” said Jon Hathaway, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at UT. “Getting students involved and interested allows us to not only increase knowledge of the concepts we’re studying, but to do so with the next wave of planners, builders and engineers.”
Jennifer Franklin, associate professor in forestry, wildlife and fisheries at UT, and Ruth Anne Hanahan of the WRRC have been helping a team of UT graduate students and AmeriCorps volunteers work with students and teachers at West to build and study environmental test columns at the school.
Among UT students, doctoral candidate Andrew Tirpak has served as a key member of the project, acting as a liaison between the university and the school. Examples of that connection include West students gaining exposure to concepts of urbanization and stormwater runoff in the classroom, then taking that information and putting it to use by studying tree health and soil fluctuations in the school’s outdoor classroom.
“Overall, this study is a small step toward understanding the benefit of trees in the urban landscape,” said Hathaway. On a larger scale, the study—which also involves research at North Carolina State University—aims to not only study how trees affect water patterns and quality overall, but also specifically find out which species of trees serve that role the best. UT’s Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment plays a crucial role in the project, helping bring together various aspects of the university and community that might not otherwise be partnered, such as the College of Engineering and the Institute of Agriculture.