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Whether the weather is cold or hot, rainy or not, research is ensuring stormwater systems are designed for the future

Project PI: Charles W. Rice, Department of Agronomy, Kansas State University

A Kansas State University team supported by Kansas NSF EPSCoR is researching how climate change is affecting rainfall and weather patterns throughout Kansas to help with future adaptation and mitigation strategies. The research team, led by Stacy Hutchinson, associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering, is updating rainfall distribution data to ensure current stormwater management systems can handle future weather changes.

Rainfall

"We are looking at how the state can minimize risk by developing a better understanding of past weather variability while looking forward at the variability expected with future climate change -- whether it is farm production systems or stormwater management," Hutchinson said.

"Our research involves understanding how climate change and land cover change -- which is the conversion of natural prairie land and agricultural land to urban and suburban land uses -- affect the potential for flooding," Hutchinson added. "It's where the variability of reality meets the built engineered world."

When engineers design stormwater management systems -- such as terraces and grass waterways in crop fields or storm sewers with underground pipes that transport road runoff to the nearest body of water -- these systems are usually designed to handle a specific storm. In the Manhattan area, natural systems such as grassed waterways and terraces are designed to handle slightly more than 3.5 inches of rain in 24 hours. This rainfall event is expected to happen once every 10 years.

"There is discussion among the engineering community about if we need to rethink the size of storm that we design for," Hutchinson said. "The bottom line is that now we have an idea of how weather trends have shifted across the state. This information will be useful to anybody who deals with stormwater runoff -- from the Kansas Department of Transportation to agricultural producers."

The research also is helpful for improving natural stormwater systems, which especially interests Hutchinson. She has studied how to move away from the concrete jungle of pipes and move toward more natural stormwater management systems, such as wetlands, rain gardens and terracing. Challenges exist with natural systems because climate and land cover changes have caused many more peaks and valleys in stormwater runoff -- from times with flooding to drought periods. As a result, natural systems tend to be at capacity in the spring because of increased rainfall and they tend to dry up during the summer when it rains less.

"We needed a better understanding of the variability of the weather so that we could better understand any risks with these natural systems," Hutchinson said. "The amount of water that flows through a pipe is pretty consistent and you can always size a pipe. But the amount of water that can be absorbed by a wetland system is a lot more in August when it is hot and dry than it is in May."

 

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