Integrated Approach Key to Health of Urban Watersheds

July 1, 2007
There’s a pond in my neighborhood that was built as part of a stormwater management system.

There’s a pond in my neighborhood that was built as part of a stormwater management system. Its spillway feeds into a detention area that is essentially wetlands. Tall grasses flourish in the wetland and tame ducks make the pond their home. A large fountain gushes in the center of the pond and is an attractive feature.

Most of the neighborhood residents probably don’t realize the fountain in the pond has a utilitarian purpose: keeping the pond aerated and healthy. They also don’t realize that the pond and the wetlands are not there solely to enhance the neighborhood; they are tools specifically designed to manage the flow of water through that part of town.

A gravel path circles the pond and wetlands, with two laps around being about a mile. It’s a nice walk, even though the wetlands can be aromatic on rare occasions. Usually it’s during an extended dry spell that the water turns dark and scum can form on small pools in among the grasses.

The green lawns of the surrounding homes might be a clue to the problems seen with nutrient loading in the pond and wetlands. And, of course, that’s why they are there - to help manage nutrients and other pollutants that flow from the neighborhood yards and streets.

My neighborhood pond is just one small piece of Tulsa’s program for managing water that flows through the city. What started as a flood prevention program has evolved over the years to a very complex water management system that includes hundreds of miles of surface channels and floodplains, thousands of miles of underground sewers, public detention basins, pump stations, wetlands, roadside ditches, and street curbs and inlets.

Cities large and small are working to meet requirements of Phases I and II of EPA’s stormwater program, and as a result are encountering the challenge of managing water in an urban setting. According to a recent GAO report, stormwater program implementation has been slow for both Phase I and II communities. In fact, almost all Phase II and some Phase I communities are still in the early stages of program implementation.

While many cities have traditionally had separate departments for handling drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and other public works, it’s becoming clear that proper management of water within a city or town requires an integrated approach that considers all the complex and interrelated pieces of the urban watershed.

Whether or not you are directly involved in water quality management, this is an important topic for everyone working in the water industry, and for that matter anyone living in a city. The amount of pollution entering the urban watershed is immense and has a far-reaching impact on the local environment and those who live downstream. It’s an issue that will only grow in importance as we move into the future.

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