Md. Farmer Gets Funding for Stormwater Containment Research

4/6/2013 7:00 AM
By Margaret Gates Regional Editor

Sam Owings has spent the better part of two years working to control stormwater runoff from his farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Using 77 acres of his land in the upper Hambleton Creek watershed as a model project, Owings constructed four cascading containment basins in an existing grass waterway.

The system, he said, is designed to hold back stormwater from a 50-year storm, along with all the sediment, nitrogen and phosphorous that would run downstream with it.

Now, thanks to a $90,000 award from Maryland Industrial Partnerships, Owings is finally able to put his project to the test.

The state-funded MIPS program helps pay for collaborative research and development projects between companies and University System of Maryland faculty.

“They give grants mainly to private industry to help them research new technology they have developed,” Owings said. “The bureaucracy is minimal. It works for me.”

Up to this point, Owings has sunk tens of thousands of his own dollars into the project. He even started his own nonprofit company, High Impact Environmental, to promote the plan and pursue grant money to complete the project on the full 567 acres in his watershed.

However, grant money is difficult to come by without independent data proving the effectiveness of the project — something Owings did not have.

But that may soon change.

The MIPS program has paired Owings with Allen Davis, a professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of Maryland, who will serve as the lead researcher for the project.

“The goal is to get measurable results on the amount of sediment, nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants that the system is preventing from running into tidal or bay waters,” Owings said.

To get those results, Davis will monitor rainfall and runoff flows into and out of the cascading basin system on Owings’ farm for one year, with a goal of measuring 18 storm events.

The MIPS funding will cover the cost of testing equipment, which includes a calibrated flume and v-notch weir to measure water flow into and out of the system, as well as automated sampling instruments. It will also cover the time and energy needed to get the samples and have them evaluated, Owings said.

High Impact Environmental also made a $10,000 cash contribution to the research project, along with an $81,750 in-kind contribution covering installation and construction, he said.

The concept behind Owings’ system is simple: The containment basins are constructed in a grass waterway initially intended for erosion control. The highest basin catches the water, with any overflow cascading to lower basins. Each basin holds about 100,000 gallons of water and should contain about 20 to 25 acres of runoff, he said.

Owings said another advantage of his system is that it uses little tillable land and is relatively inexpensive, requiring mainly excavating and grading.

He completed a second phase of the project in December, constructing an additional four basins on a larger, 150-acre drainage area of his farm.

The research, however, will focus only on the 77-acre drainage area in phase 1, he said.

From his visits to the site, his discussions with Owings and some rough data, Davis said the system is intriguing.

“As a researcher, my job is to determine how this device will function, not how well it will function,” Davis said. “We all want this to work.”

The hope, he said, is that there will be a big difference between the amount of water flowing into the system and the amount flowing out.

Davis said his role is not only to provide unbiased data on how the system performs with sediment and phosphorus removal, but also to make recommendations to Owings on how it can be improved.

Experience shows that 18 storms should provide the variety necessary to answer that question, Davis said. He also hopes to determine if the system functions differently in summer and winter or when storms occur back to back.

“We want to try to get a distribution that is representative of storm events we get in Chestertown,” Davis said. “We can’t have 18 big ones or 18 small ones. That won’t be representative.”

From his own observations, Owings said, the system has held up well so far, even under some extreme circumstances.

“Since it’s been implemented, we’ve had at least two, maybe three, 100-year storm events,” Owings said. “There have been no failures. Everything’s working great with it.”

But the real test will be in the research, which has been delayed, ironically, due to the weather. It’s been too wet to install the equipment, Owings said.

If the results show promise for reducing stormwater pollution in the bay, Owings said he hopes others take notice and see it as an option worth funding on other farms.

“My hope is that NRCS and some of these other environmental organizations that give grants will recognize the effectiveness of it and start looking at these programs more seriously as far as cost-sharing and grant money,” he said.

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