University of South Florida Researchers Secure $1.5M EPA Grant to Mitigate Water Pollution

A research team at the University of South Florida (USF) has received a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to combat water pollution in a local stormwater pond that drains into Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The team will introduce a pioneering bio-infiltration system at Aaran’s Pond, situated in Tampa’s University Area Community, an underserved locality where over one-third of the population lives below the federal poverty line.

According to Sarina Ergas, the project’s principal investigator and a professor in the USF Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, rainwater washes pollutants such as fertilizers, oil, animal waste, and rotting vegetation into the gutters, which ultimately leads to the pond. Ergas highlighted the disparity in the condition of stormwater ponds in affluent and low-income communities, describing the latter’s ponds as “inert zombies.”

The contamination, if unaddressed, trickles down into the Hillsborough River and Tampa Bay, negatively impacting marine life by fostering harmful algal blooms and reducing oxygen levels. Nutrients such as nitrogen are particularly damaging, killing sea grass and disrupting the aquatic ecosystem.

In collaboration with Oldcastle Infrastructure, the USF team plans to install four bio-infiltration systems around Aaran’s Pond. These systems will utilize biochar, a charcoal-like material, to treat runoff water by reducing nutrient pollution and stimulating microbial activity and plant growth. This initiative marks the first application of biochar in a pond environment, following its successful use in lab experiments.

The USF researchers are also partnering with Mary Lusk, a stormwater pond expert from the University of Florida, and the Hillsborough County Engineering and Operations Department. Their joint efforts will focus on reshaping the pond and planting bio-infiltration systems with shrubs and bushes along its steep slopes. The aim is not only to enhance water quality but also to make the pond a more visually appealing feature for the community.

Sarah Combs, CEO of the University Area Community Development Corp., which concentrates on the redevelopment and sustainability of the impoverished areas around the USF Tampa campus, commended the initiative. “We believe the project will yield long-term benefits for our community by improving both human and environmental health,” Combs stated.

Christian Wells, a professor in the USF Department of Anthropology, views the project as an avenue to reimagine the function of stormwater ponds in communities. Wells, assisted by graduate students, will survey local residents to assess their needs and use the data to enhance recreational amenities, potentially including new features like picnic tables, walking trails, and parks.

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