Stormwater Management on Campus: What I Learned from U-M Stormwater Specialist Dana Wilkinson

As the effects of climate change continue to increase in frequency, all organizations must undertake mitigation measures in order to sufficiently prepare for what lies ahead. The Environmental Protection and Permitting group within the U-M Environment, Health, & Safety (EHS) Department is responsible for managing U-M’s state-issued stormwater discharge permit and for helping to prepare our campus for future extreme weather events. Stormwater management is a core part of their work.

Stormwater is runoff from rainfall or snowmelt that flows over impermeable surfaces into natural water sources. In states like Michigan that receive plentiful rain and snow events, managing this abundance of runoff is essential so that our streets, homes, and U-M’s campuses are not flooded and our water quality is protected. There have been more intense storms in Southeast Michigan in recent years, like the severe flooding last summer, that have been testing the limits of existing infrastructure.

I recently had the privilege of talking with Dana Wilkinson, a Stormwater Specialist in EHS, and I learned a lot about U-M’s efforts to reduce runoff into the Huron River and what they do to keep campus stormwater runoff clean.

Wilkinson’s work focuses on environmental quality and compliance-related issues relevant to U-M. This means that she helps the university community perform their necessary jobs while also trying to prevent any environmental damage. Her group also makes sure that the University adheres to state-issued environmental permits. Her main focus is reducing pollutants in stormwater in order to keep the water bodies near our campus clean and in good health. 

Two students enjoy time by the river. One reading, the other just enjoying the view.
Two students enjoy the banks of the Huron River at the Nichols Arboretum.

Stormwater mitigation will become increasingly important as climate change continues to take its toll. Storms have been increasing in frequency and intensity and will likely continue to do so, thus existing infrastructure may no longer be enough to manage incoming runoff. Detroit has faced several “500-year-storms” in the past decade, and that rate may continue to increase as the effects of climate change compound. U-M’s EHS Department works with other U-M Facilities & Operations departments to find and implement solutions for managing stormwater on our ever-changing campus.

There are a variety of stormwater management solutions, and nature already provides many of them! For example, grasses, trees, and other plants intake water and reduce flooding around them. Green infrastructure installed on campus often mimics these natural conditions. For instance, there is a rain garden on the east side of the Dana building, which is a type of a more natural solution. There are also several “green roofs” across campus, such as on the Ross School of Business, the Biological Sciences Building, and the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. These look like gardens and grass patches implemented on a roof, and they slow down the rate of urban runoff into nearby water sources. 

Just outside of the Dana building, lush green grasses populate in the rain garden, and an educational sign is posted to help with plant identification.
The rain garden on the east side of the Dana Building.

Other, stormwater solutions can be found underground and are plentiful around campus, though we do not see them. To facilitate stormwater movement, we have pipes directing runoff into neighboring bodies of water, like the Huron River or Millers Creek. To reduce flooding and meet environmental permit requirements, U-M has installed numerous underground stormwater detention and retention systems that release runoff more slowly or even infiltrate stormwater into the ground. Some of the larger systems on campus are under Ingalls Mall and next to the UMMA.

A very large concrete water holding device being installed underground by construction workers.
The underground stormwater infiltration system next to UMMA.

Areas at high risk of erosion, such as steep hills and active construction sites with exposed soil, must be closely monitored. If not, sediment from these sites can enter nearby waterways. Sediment, as well as nutrients or other materials it may be carrying, can be harmful to aquatic life. This is why you’ll often see fabric fences surrounding construction sites: they catch the sediment and retain it before it can flow away from the site. 

Stormwater management is essential, but it is work that largely goes unseen. There are many easy ways to do your part even if you do not work with EHS. A key way to help is to report any spills or illicit dumping of materials you see by calling EHS (734-647-1143) or DPSS (911), so that harmful pollutants do not contaminate our water resources. The Huron River Watershed Council also has an Adopt-a-Storm Drain program where people can help keep both their neighborhood and the Huron River clean! Anyone can sign up to monitor a storm drain in their community.

A clogged storm drain full of leaves and debris.
This storm drain could use your help! photo from: Grand Valley State University

Also, make sure you are properly disposing of materials such as pet waste, paints, cleaning supplies, and used oil. Never dump anything down storm drains—Only rain in the storm drain! Washtenaw County’s Home Toxics Center is open on weekdays to accept your hazardous waste, which includes but is not limited to paint, cleaning materials, light bulbs, and batteries. 

Check out the EHS website to learn more about stormwater management at U-M! You can also visit the Huron River Watershed Council and U-M’s stormwater management highlights page.

1 thought on “Stormwater Management on Campus: What I Learned from U-M Stormwater Specialist Dana Wilkinson”

  1. I’d love to see more rain gardens on campus that could serve to educate the public! Lots of areas in the Diag regularly have standing water and it would be wonderful if these could be transformed into pollinator-friendly rain gardens with educational signage.

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