Cincinnati State's campus acts as a living laboratory for green-collar job training

EPA and area sewer experts also learning

CINCINNATI -- Levon Siler started college at 35 to do more than earn a degree in environmental engineering. He wanted to solve the kinds of problems he’d seen over and over again in his construction business, Novel Whole House Solutions.

“I did a lot of roof and foundation repairs,” says the 37-year-old Cincinnati native, a father of three who lives in Northside. “I never understood why the gutters went underneath the houses.”

He started directing roof runoff into gardens filled with plants that thrive in wet soil. The gardens were pretty, but also practical. They absorbed a lot of rainwater and slowed the flow of water into the streets and sewer system.

When he started taking stormwater management classes at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College in 2011, he learned what to call what he’d been doing in those local landscapes: Creating rain gardens.

He also learned about green infrastructure in the form of the 42-acre campus’ rain gardens, level spreaders, specially paved parking areas and other water management projects.

Cincinnati State level spreaders

“We have this living classroom around us,” Siler says of the 18 acres of projects, most of which use plants and soil to manage rainwater that falls on the hillside campus.

Siler’s experiences illustrate the growing value of Cincinnati State’s campus as an environmental lab for studying eco-friendly water resource management.

The projects have already attracted researchers from as far away as California who come for tours and leave with notebooks full of ideas. In Cincinnati State classes, students like Siler learn alongside professionals - who double as teachers – as well as from scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Geological Survey and the city’s Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati.

Innovative research aside, Siler sees more immediate benefits in the training he’s receiving.

“There are tons of jobs in stormwater management,” Siler says. “And there will be more and more. It’s not just in Cincinnati. We’re spending $3 billion here, but you go to any other city in the Midwest or on the coast. These issues are here to stay.”

Taking a chance on change

By all accounts, the campus’ green initiatives have been both exciting and risky.

What started in 2007 with discussions about how to update the college’s biggest parking lot led to a collaboration with the EPA and the MSDGC, which remains under a federal decree to decrease the amount of storm and sewer water overflows into local waterways.

MSDGC agreed to pay more than $2 million toward the costs if Cincinnati State used environmentally-friendly stormwater controls—from porous asphalt  to rain gardens —to limit the roughly 30 million gallons of runoff from the campus every year. By installing different types of controls at Cincinnati State, MSDGC and the EPA could test the effectiveness of technologies not often measured outside of research facilities.

Construction started in 2009 and ended in 2011, and it featured eight kinds of stormwater controls. Together, they decrease the amount of water flowing down the campus’ hillside and into the sewer system during rainfalls. They also offer training grounds for Cincinnati State mainstays like Environmental Engineering Technology and Landscape Horticulture. They also paved the way for a new Applied Business Degree in Sustainable Horticulture, a program that launched this fall.

The new plans also cost the all-commuter campus some of its most valuable real estate—more than 100 parking spaces at a time when enrollment, up 5.2 percent this fall semester alone, continues to rise. Installing green demonstration projects was not, administrators recall, the most popular decision.

“It took guts for the administration to pull the trigger, but they did,” says Bob White, Cincinnati State’s media relations coordinator, of the green initiatives. “It was controversial.”

For Cincinnati State Grounds Supervisor Kimberly Vasko, the controversy paled in comparison to the challenges of maintaining untested new systems that were linked together, yet required individualized care.

Kim Vasko

 “When this project came on, I was clueless,” she says. “I was a traditional horticulturalist. I had to start learning.”

Vasko earned an associate’s degree in sustainability studies from Cincinnati State as she planted more than 300 native plant species around the campus, including more than 20 types of native trees. She wouldn’t trade the class experiences the new projects have enabled her to lead, though she did have to hire another grounds manager to keep up with the new maintenance demands.

A measurable trickle-down effect

As she learned about permeable pavers and bioretention ponds, so did students like Levon Siler and researchers from the EPA and MSDGC.

Cincinnati State’s two-phased, $2.9 million construction projects did more than incorporate a range of techniques to limit and slow storm runoff. It arranged those techniques into a treatment train that starts at the campus’ hilltop parking lots and ends with rain gardens, also known as bioretention ponds, and a cistern that harvests stormwater.

Cincinnati State retention pond

“They have a top-notch facility for not only monitoring but in terms of looking at how systems can work when they are all put together,” says Ruben Kertesz, an environmental engineer and postdoctoral fellow with the EPA Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education who moved to Cincinnati to work in the agency’s water supply and resources division.

Some of the techniques, known as Best Management Practices or BMPs, seem obvious, like installing porous concrete that absorbs some water and drains what’s left into a system that can be used to water healthy plants.

At Cincinnati State, that drainage goes into a rain garden where plants native to the region can thrive.

“I was pretty excited to see these things work,” Kertesz says. Initial research shows that the projects are, in fact, reducing the peak flow of runoff, he says, but it’s still very early in the monitoring process and there are many lessons to learn.

Because of the controlled environment of the campus, researchers can test not only how different BMPs work in concert with each other, but also the effectiveness of different high-tech monitoring options. There are still many lessons to learn.

Measurements from Cincinnati State’s multitude of projects, while monitored by different groups, will offer some answers, especially when it comes to determining the most efficient stormwater strategies and communicating those strategies to people on the front lines of water management, construction firm employees and homeowners.

“What we set out to do is to make it easier to monitor green infrastructure,” Kertesz says.

His work at Cincinnati State has shown Kertesz that while reducing storm runoff may be academic in a lab setting, the real world includes real, and often unexpected, obstacles.

“People don’t realize how many stakeholders there are when it comes to green infrastructure,” he says, noting that landscape architects, landscapers, designers, contractors and land owners all have to be on the same page when it comes to comprehensive solutions to water use and re-use. “It’s amazing when you see research and construction come together.”

Stormwater innovations make an elementary impact

Siler didn’t have to look further than his own child’s elementary school, the Fairview-Clifton German Language School, to find an opportunity to put his newfound stormwater knowledge to constructive use.

As he huddled with other parents picking up their children from school during rainy days, he took shelter under the minimal cover offered by a gutter-less historic 1880s carriage house that sits tucked behind the five-year-old school building. Water pooled as it poured off the roof, making a muddy mess during warm weather and an icy path in winter.

Working with Cincinnati Public Schools, the Fairview parent volunteer group and the Clifton Cultural Arts Center, which owns the carriage house, Siler developed a plan to minimize the runoff. Last March, he raised enough funds to install drains and five rain barrels around the Samuel Hannaford-designed building to collect the excess rainwater.

Levon Siler

Then he developed a plan to add more rain barrels, install a rain garden and shore up the ground around the carriage house by planting native species. He hopes to have the whole project funded and completed by next summer.

And, taking a page from his Cincinnati State instructors’ lesson plans, he has already talked with teachers at the school who want to incorporate ideas about green infrastructure into their curricula.

“I saw what was possible,” he says of the projects at Cincinnati State. “It’s an inspiration.”

Beyond what he can do for the families of Fairview, Siler says his time at Cincinnati State has heightened his interest in stormwater management, and his commitment to changing the way people in the region think about water.

“By the time I retire, I’d like to see our city understand the value of the 41 inches of rain we have every year, that we can see it as a great resource,” he says.

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