Students’ stormwater plan gains traction

Two years ago, a team of students in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering took top honors in a national design competition for their plan to retrofit the stormwater system for Madison’s Arbor Hills neighborhood. But at a community meeting this spring, the plan earned a different kind of positive feedback — thumbs-up from neighborhood residents.

People in the area have been wary of plans to change the current setup, which centers on a concrete channel running through the 10-acre Arbor Hills Greenway . The problem is that the systems sends large volumes of water from Arbor Hills under the Beltline to the UW-Madison arborertum, where it is causing severe erosion and sedimentation. The students, coached by associate professor Anita Thompson and faculty associate John Panuska, proposed replacing the concrete channel with three “dry ponds” that would infiltrate most of the stormwater into the sandy soil underneath the greenway. Neighbors are understandably concerned about any plans to alter the greenway, which serves as a local park and recreation area. But one of the ponds proposed by the students would double as a soccer field. The others would be landscaped with native plants, like large-scale rain gardens.

The project isn’t a done deal. There will be more neighborhood meetings before anything gets finalized. And there are plenty of demands on the city engineering budget, which, like all local government budgets, is facing major cutbacks. But city engineers have been enthusiastic about the design from the get-go. “Right now I’d go with something very close to (the students’ design),” says Mike Dalley, the city’s chief engineer. “They did a very thorough job too. It was at the level I’d expect if I’d hired a consultant to do a conceptual design.”