By Maren Johnson
One of Dr. Gerald Smith’s most memorable lectures starts when he pulls out a can of crappy beer, pours it on the ground, and asks “Where does this go?” Generally, there are a few older students who know some of the watersheds around Sewanee, but few students actually know where the water goes. Things are changing, though, with the Office of Environmental Stewardship’s new drainage medallions. Now as students and visitors walk across campus, with just one glance they can see where their water is going. Professor Martin Knoll started the effort to have storm water grates labelled, following in the footsteps of a nationwide education movement across campuses and communities. According to Kevin Hiers (C’96), the Director of Environmental Stewardship, what many people don’t realize is that storm water runoff is not filtered for pollutants before entering streams, which directly affects their ecology. These medallions allow students to see where the water, like the stream in Abbo’s Alley or behind Woods, that they walk by daily will travel.
Feedback from students has been very positive; according to Hiers, “There is a lot of interest among folks to buy them as coasters, which we are considering…. We’d like to expand the program if we can raise enough money–they cost $10 each.” The hope is that selling these to alumni and students would help recover some of the production cost.
The Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability is planning on expanding their watershed studies. As new construction goes up, storm water planning must be done, too. As the hodge-podge of buildings on campus have been built, little to no notice has been taken of the two main watersheds on campus: Abbo’s Alley and Lost Cove. Hiers has spent some time thinking about how Sewanee can be more conscious of its drainage: “There are a number of measures that could be taken on roads and drains that may slow the movement of water and filter potential garbage before the streams exit campus.” This is extremely helpful in maintaining the health of the fragile stream ecosystems here on the Domain. Another big step is to bring in technology that would help give a more comprehensive look at the watersheds of the entire domain. Hiers adds, “Such a plan would be enhanced by our recently acquired LiDAR, which shows us microelevation of the Domain at 10-20 points per square meter (accurate to a cm at each point).” Technology at this scale can help improve building plans for all the future development that Sewanee is planning. The medallions all over campus are just the beginning, as Sewanee moves to where, as Hiers says, “we can now do hydrological modeling and stormwater impact analysis at a level of precision most cities can only dream of.”
As Sewanee continues to move in the direction of larger universities and communities, there will continue to be efforts to educate citizens on where their water will end up. The hope is that this level of conscientiousness will mean healthier stream and river water in the future. Clean water is a universal human right according the United Nations, and that includes people on the plateau and down the mountain too.