Theses Doctoral

New York City’s Green Infrastructure: Impacts on Nutrient Cycling and Improvements in Performance

Shetty, Nandan Hara

Urban stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces reduces water quality and ecological diversity in surrounding streams. The problem is exacerbated in older cities with combined sewer systems like New York City, where roughly 30 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater runoff are combined and dumped into the New York harbor annually. Rain gardens and green roofs are designed to naturally manage stormwater, but both performance data and design guidance are limited. In particular, rain gardens are not optimized for nutrient removal, and US green roofs are commonly planted with non-native vegetation, which may not be optimized for water retention.
The first of three studies in this dissertation investigates the overall effect of rain gardens on nutrient removal. Engineers have found there to be tradeoffs between rain garden designs that overall favor greater water retention and those that favor removal of pollutant nutrients, as efficient nutrient removal requires designs that drain slowly, and thus absorb less stormwater. Despite these opposing concerns, this dissertation has found that rain gardens constructed in areas with combined sewer systems should focus on water retention, as the benefits of treating increased amounts of water outweigh admitted downsides, such as the leaching of pollutant nutrients contained in rain garden soil.
The second study investigates how nutrient pollution can be reduced in rain gardens. To do this, it quantifies the rate that the rain garden’s soil creates nitrogen pollution, by converting nitrogen from organic to inorganic forms, as inorganic nitrogen is more readily washed out of the soil and into water bodies. Conversely, it also quantifies the amount of nitrogen consumed by plants and also nitrogen emitted in gas form. It then uses the results to construct an overall nitrogen mass balance. The results indicate that the soil used to build rain gardens is in fact too nitrogen rich; inorganic nitrogen supplied by the decomposition of organic nitrogen and by stormwater runoff is far greater than required to maintain vegetative health for rain garden plants. The study concludes that altering rain garden soil specifications could reduce nitrogen pollution.
The third study finds that “industry-standard” green roofs planted with drought-tolerant Sedum vegetation might not capture as much stormwater as “next-generation” native systems with irrigation and smart detention. Specifically, the study provides crop coefficients demonstrating reduced evapotranspiration in drought tolerant green roof plants compared to native plants. It also found a native roof’s stormwater capture increased with irrigation and the use of a smart runoff detention system, which automatically reduced the volume of water in the cistern that captures roof runoff in advance of a predicted storm.
US government agencies are launching multi-billion dollar greening initiatives that include rain gardens and green roofs designed to manage volumes of stormwater runoff. The research here can assist in quantifying performance and improving green infrastructure designs.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics
Thesis Advisors
Culligan, Patricia J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 19, 2018