Szafara: Storm water research a potential boon

Temple’s storm water research grant could benefit the city.


VictoriaSzafaraDark clouds roll in quickly, and for a few hours the city is bathed in a beautiful rain, the symbol of renewal – the earth cleansing itself. However, maybe it is too easy to forget that which lies just below the surface. We forget about the decay that litters our city’s gutter system, which comes to light with a flood of water.  We forget that in a 2013 “State of the Air” report compiled by the American Lung Association, Philadelphia ranked as the 11th most polluted city in the U.S. When asked about the state of waterways such as the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, PennEnvironment Field Director Adam Garber described them as “a polluter’s paradise.”

As such, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency supplied a $4 million research grant to Temple and three other colleges in the Philadelphia area in January to study the way in which cities dispose of stormwater, which can often overflow and soak streets and sidewalks if not handled properly.

When heavy rains hit the city, the water that collects can be potentially dangerous as it mixes with pollutants in the streets. The traditional method of preventing flooding would be to divert this water to local streams, but doing so spoils the city’s natural water supply and upsets its ecosystem. The EPA’s grant allows Philadelphia to act as a prototype for proper stormwater removal in American cities, wherein carefully planned soil and vegetation are planted to prevent stormwater damage.

Despite the fact that the EPA has come under fire from conservatives in recent months, its grant to universities in the Philadelphia area is the type of economy-boosting initiative that our tax dollars should be funding in the first place.

“Philadelphia is the national leader in implementing green infrastructure practices and is generally recognized as an international leader as well,” said Jeff Featherstone, director of Temple’s Center for Sustainable Communities and leader of Temple’s part in the research grant.

The prominence of research-intensive university programs in the city provides a solid task force for developing solutions. Featherstone said he was eager to cooperate, but ceded that the initiative is far from foolproof.

“This field has very little scientific research,” Featherstone said. “This grant and the EPA program are the first serious forays into scientific research on GI. Properly instrumenting and monitoring GI projects can be tricky and expensive.”

Featherstone also cited the grant as a great opportunity to work alongside other universities in the Philadelphia area.

“We look forward to working with the other universities,” he added. “In particular, Temple has a long-standing partnership with Villanova called the Temple-Villanova Sustainable Stormwater Partnership.”

The plan has the potential to not only aid in the protection of our drinking water, but bolster the economy in the Philadelphia area. If North Philadelphia alone were able to clean up a bit with simple GI implementations as water-tolerant plants and patches of greenery, the area would become more appealing to homeowners, and property values may rise in the coming years.

“I grew up in Kensington and we did not have a single tree on the block, but now that I live in the suburbs, I feel the need to go beyond seeing greenery as a solution to one of ecology’s problems,” prospective area homeowner Sharon Hoffman said.

With the EPA pouring money into Philadelphia’s unique project, city researchers are able to stay in the vanguard of GI development and attract scholars from around the country, a true asset to further education-based funding and job creation.  In short, it seems as though good ecology is good business.

Victoria Szafara can be reached at

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