water steps

A new project at the University of Pittsburgh will have students getting their hands dirty in the name of sustainability.

A group of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh received $49,912 in funding from the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation for a new research and education effort looking at changes in soil moisture, particularly in areas where the natural environment interacts with urban areas. The project requires students and faculty to gather data on soil moisture levels around Pittsburgh and use the information to determine how green infrastructure could help with stormwater management.

The Environmental Protection Agency defines stormwater as rainwater or melted snow that runs off streets, lawns and other sites. It’s absorbed and filtered through the soil and eventually replenishes aquifers or flows into streams and rivers.

However, stormwater in developed areas tends to go through storm drains, sewer systems and drainage ditches, which prevent it from naturally soaking into the ground. The effect can lead to a number of issues, including flooding, habitat destruction, sewer overflows and water contamination.

“This specific proposal is evaluating urban soil moisture to help us see how stormwater forms in an urban environment, and how we can get rid of that stormwater either by using green infrastructure or sustainable development,” says Brian Thomas, assistant professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Science at Pitt’s Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Thomas serves as principal investigator of the study, working alongside Daniel Bain and Emily Elliott from the Department of Geology and Environmental Science and David Sanchez from the Swanson School’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The project will also serve as a “living lab” where students can immerse themselves in work outside of the classroom. The grant will enable Thomas and the rest of the team to hire undergraduate and graduate Pitt students from all majors to work on the project.

“What we’re looking to do is build an environment where we can conduct interdisciplinary research and get students involved in the concept of sustainability,” says Thomas.

Students and researchers will begin collecting samples sometime in the early spring. Thomas says he and his fellow researchers are currently working with Pittsburgh Parks to figure out where they can place their soil moisture probes. They have their eyes on Panther Hollow or Frick Park.

Thomas says that while this is a small project, they intend on applying for more funding so they can continue their research and build upon it.

“In the long run, we want to take this data and go for larger funding projects and then involve some of the watershed associations in the area to get students involved in real-world problems,” says Thomas.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated...