UConn Professor Michael Dietz pushes for green stormwater infrastructure

By MAINA DURAFOUR | UConn Jour­nal­ism
Decem­ber 1, 2023

Pic­ture this – heavy rain pound­ing down dur­ing vio­lent storms in the mid­dle of sum­mer, fol­lowed by days of intense heat. Many of us are expe­ri­enc­ing this every year. When the sun shines again, you may think the water has left – but heavy rain has a sig­nif­i­cant neg­a­tive impact on our soil and rivers.

Michael Dietz is the direc­tor of the Con­necti­cut Insti­tute of Water Resources and a joint fac­ul­ty mem­ber in the Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources and the Envi­ron­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut. His work focus­es on storm water and its con­se­quences. He has been work­ing for years with munic­i­pal­i­ties to help them deal with stormwa­ter issues such as water pol­lu­tion and soil ero­sion. Dietz also advis­es land­scap­ers and home­own­ers on how to install new green stormwa­ter practices.

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut has been adopt­ing many of these prac­tices, includ­ing rain gar­dens and per­me­able pave­ments. When it rains, untreat­ed water comes off of build­ings, park­ing lots, and roads, and flows through the stormwa­ter sys­tem into Connecticut’s rivers. Rain gar­dens and per­me­able pave­ments col­lect the water and let it sink into high­er grounds so it doesn’t cause prob­lems fur­ther down­stream. Rain gar­dens also pro­vide habi­tats for wildlife and can be beau­ti­ful built envi­ron­ments for peo­ple to look at.

These solu­tions con­tribute to reduc­ing the pol­lu­tion of local streams and ulti­mate­ly the Long Island Sound, where all of Connecticut’s rivers end. The prac­tices have the fur­ther advan­tage of improv­ing aes­thet­ics and green space in devel­oped areas like in New Haven, where many rain gar­dens have been put in place.

So why don’t we see more green water installations?

Accord­ing to Dietz, peo­ple are reluc­tant to change their behav­ior because they pre­fer the known to the unknown. Engi­neers and land­scape con­trac­tors often refuse to take in new ideas on how to design storm water fea­tures, he said.

They view them as untest­ed,” Dietz said. “They are not sure how they would work; they don’t want to take a risk.”

Mar­i­anne Bar­ton, clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor and direc­tor of the Psy­cho­log­i­cal Ser­vices Clin­ic, explained that peo­ple are will­ing to change their habits when they are afraid of neg­a­tive con­se­quences or when they expect pos­i­tive con­se­quences. Peo­ple have to believe that their effort will make a dif­fer­ence or be reward­ing in order to act on it. 

Gain­ing com­mu­ni­ty sup­port can be a key fac­tor in push­ing for­ward these technologies.

We need to be part of larg­er groups that share our con­cerns and our beliefs that we can make a dif­fer­ence,” Bar­ton said.

She also said that a trau­mat­ic event relat­ed to cli­mate change could push peo­ple to be more inter­est­ed in the devel­op­ment of sus­tain­able infrastructure.

When peo­ple are at a time of a sig­nif­i­cant life change that is when they are most like­ly to change their behav­ior,” Bar­ton said.

Dietz said he sees hope in the younger gen­er­a­tion of engi­neers, who take these dilem­mas to heart and are more will­ing to work with new meth­ods. This is at least the case of the new gen­er­a­tion of engi­neer­ing stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut, who are trained on stormwa­ter issues dur­ing some of their class­es and the con­cep­tion of their senior design project, Dietz said.

Younger peo­ple are def­i­nite­ly more open to those things and that cer­tain­ly helps,” he said.

But this issue is not only gen­er­a­tional. Towns have old reg­u­la­tions in place that make it dif­fi­cult to expand stormwa­ter infra­struc­ture. Some reg­u­la­tions impose min­i­mum road widths that can be too wide and gen­er­ate excess runoff, or require curbs that don’t allow for any runoff at all, accord­ing to Dietz. 

How­ev­er, the Munic­i­pal Sep­a­rate Storm Sew­er Sys­tem (MS4requires towns to dis­con­nect imper­vi­ous cov­er and remove bar­ri­ers to green stormwa­ter prac­tices by look­ing at their reg­u­la­tions. New Haven, Water­bury, Hart­ford or Bridge­port are part of the MS4 permit. 

How­ev­er, every town has its own set of reg­u­la­tions and Dietz said there is very lit­tle state reg­u­la­tion in the Unit­ed States when it comes to envi­ron­men­tal issues. Each town has dif­fer­ent needs, bud­gets and resources, which pos­es a chal­lenge in itself.

Pushing for change

Dietz said that changes are need­ed imme­di­ate­ly. In Con­necti­cut, the risk of big­ger and more destruc­tive storms is ever present. Peo­ple like Dietz are work­ing dili­gent­ly to edu­cate the pub­lic and lim­it the dam­ages of these cat­a­stroph­ic events.

Dietz said that when he was younger, he envi­sioned him­self “being able to make these changes that need­ed to hap­pen and fix these prob­lems not sin­gle hand­ed­ly, but in some small way.” But he’s “dis­ap­point­ed over­all with the rate of change that’s hap­pened because it changes slowly.”

How­ev­er, he keeps work­ing towards edu­cat­ing peo­ple on stormwa­ter man­age­ment and the instal­la­tion of green infrastructure. 

One of his com­ing projects is to write a pro­pos­al to fund stu­dents to work on the design of green infra­struc­ture and dis­con­nect imper­vi­ous cov­er in coastal areas. This would have a tan­gi­ble ben­e­fit for these cities which are the most impact­ed by stormwa­ter issues. 

This project is intend­ed to push coastal cities to do more in terms of green infra­struc­ture, as well as teach stu­dents more deeply about the con­cep­tion and use of them. 

Dietz acknowl­edged the chal­leng­ing scope of his pro­pos­al but reit­er­at­ed its impor­tance. “You’re going big or you’re stay­ing home.”

TOP PHOTO: Michael Dietz explains the ben­e­fit of rain gar­den instal­la­tions by UCon­n’s Oak Hall. Pho­to by Maina Durafour

This sto­ry was also pub­lished by Plan­et For­ward.