Biological & Environmental Engineering
Soil & Water Lab
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Urban stormwater infrastructure: Water quality, nutrient cycling, and greenhouse gas emissions in road ditches

Wherever there are roads, there are often road ditches to help route storm runoff away and reduce flooding. While this is good for human safety, this may also quickly route pollutants toward streams without much opportunity for taking advantage of natural biological processes that could aid in removing excess nutrients.


Grassed road ditch
This research addresses the role of road ditches in influencing water quality and nutrient cycling in a suburban watershed located in Tompkins County, NY. The primary stream is being gaged and periodically sampled for chloride and a suite of nutrients in two locations. Grassed road ditches between these two locations are being sampled during storm events for water quality. Additionally, we are studying nutrient cycling processes that occur in these grassy ditches. With influxes of nutrient-laden water, there may be microbial processes such as denitrification helping to remove nitrate. However, some of these microbial processes could also generate greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, and thus we are also measuring these gases.

Sampling Methods


Water sampling

Soil sampling

Soil gas sampling

Overall, we hope that this research will help us better understand how road ditches influence downstream water quality in this watershed. It will also show us how microbial processes in the soil of grassed ditches may aid in taking up excess nutrients in stormwater, as well as whether these processes are serving as a source of greenhouse gases. In general, all of this information can help inform future management of stormwater in developed landscapes.

Staff: This project is led by PhD student Lauren McPhillips, under the guidance of Professor Todd Walter and with assistance from undergraduate student Peri Gerson

Funding: This work is funded by the NYS Water Resources Institute and the Cornell Engineering Learning Initiatives Undergraduate Research Grant Program

If you have any questions about this project, please contact Lauren McPhillips.

Last updated June 2014