Rain, rain go away (safely and efficiently with Marshall’s expertise and planning)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen it rains around here, it tends to pour. And when it pours, the streets around Huntington tend to back up and flood. This is a compounding problem for the Marshall community, its neighbors and the environment.

But the water drainage problem has had at least one positive effect: It carved out a special position in Marshall’s Environmental Health and Safety Department for an expert to reduce the runoff and meet governmental regulations of a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System Permit (MS4). The permit requires municipalities – or areas of high concentrations of people such as a college campus – to reduce the amount of stormwater and pollutants discharged from their property.

Travis Bailey has been on the job as an environmental specialist at Marshall University for just over two years. His problem:

  • Huntington’s campus is roughly 112 acres.
  • Nearly 80 percent of that surface is impervious to water – building rooftops, artificial turf, sidewalks, parking lots and alleys.
  • In a rainstorm, the downtown area of Marshall can generate millions of gallons of stormwater.

Yes, millions.

Once it reaches the streets,  runoff can pick up pollutants, including oil from automobiles and sewage,  which  make their way to the Ohio River, head downstream and end up in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’ve then created a problem for downstream communities whose drinking water and livelihood comes from healthy water,” Bailey said. “And we certainly do not want that to happen.”

So, he works to solve the problem. Daily visits to storm drains, constant research into new technologies, and continual collaboration with the likes of smart scientists who have a passion for the environment as well as problem solving. He has meetings with experts from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, who enforce compliance of the MS4 permits. In a recent inspection, the university received kudos from inspectors.

“That’s unusual for anyone,” Bailey said. “The letter actually commended us on our efforts. It was a big day for us, but we still have so much to do.”

He also has monthly meetings with a group of experts from the College of Science including Dr. Charles Somerville, dean; Mindy Armstead, associate professor, David Graefe, assistant professor; Emily Gillespie, assistant professor; and Avia Huisman, outreach coordinator. Margie Phillips, manager of the university’s Sustainability Department, and Pete Divers, assistant director of Housing and Residence Life, round out the group Bailey calls “The Incredibles.”

“Anything is easy to fix if you have a lot of money to throw at it,” Bailey said. “But I want to develop easy, cost-effective ways to control stormwater runoff. I want to utilize a commonsense approach to stormwater management. I’m always open to ideas and looking for creative solutions and I have great professors, deans and administrators with great minds giving me not just great ideas, but great solutions.”

Even though his job description reads like a mathematical word problem; there’s no one perfect solution. He and his collaborators work to solve a dilemma that is common among universities across the state and country. Since the campus is like a little city within the city of Huntington, Marshall officials have to figure out how to deal with the water its buildings create. So far, Bailey has utilized the installation of a living “green roof” on the College of Science Building, sunken rain gardens in high water collection areas, and grass swells adjacent to the new soccer stadium.  He and his collaborators have applied for grants to expand these practices, install other measures and also have employed a lot of imaginative thinking to deal with the issue.

New construction can make MS4 compliance a little easier. The Arthur Weisberg Family Applied Engineering Complex has been designed to house a green roof as well as underground holding tanks that will give the first inch of water collected during a rainfall a place to pool until it has time to percolate more slowly back into the environment. The roof is designed to be a beautiful spot as well as an outdoor teaching tool, one Bailey hopes to utilize himself in the classes he teaches as an adjunct professor of microbiology.

“That area was formerly a flat parking lot. Just by putting a building there and planning the collection areas underground, we’ve taken 56,000 gallons of rushing water out of play.”

The Indoor Athletic Facility currently under construction will produce 110,000 gallons of water during the first inch of a rainfall. Underground storage tanks will capture that runoff and let it seep slowly into the land as well.

“When you are building new construction, you can plan for your stormwater controls,” he said. “The real challenge is in retrofitting affordably or employing creative solutions into existing infrastructure. We have some rain barrels here and there on campus, but we need to think more long-term than that. And we are.”

He’s awaiting word on a grant from the West Virginia Conservation Agency that will provide funding for him to test several different technologies like permeable pavers, porous concrete, rain tanks and grass pavers. He and his team also are looking for manageable ways to make their own special dirt for rain gardens and landscaping that is more porous and conducive to holding water until it can be absorbed.

His hope?

“I would like Marshall University to be the poster child for what you can do with green infrastructure and a lot of creativity,” Bailey said. “I want to reduce our stormwater runoff contribution, but someday I hope to do it in a way that lets us actually use what we collect in some way.”

His long-term vision?

“I want to involve facets of the entire university community in coming up with solutions. I can see experts in the College of Business helping us do feasibility studies. I can see people from the College of Arts and Media creating beautiful solutions and helping us promote them. Down the line, I want to make the problem open to many great minds from Marshall,” Bailey said.


Photo: Travis Bailey, environmental specialist, points out the first green roof on Marshall University’s Huntington campus. It is located on the Science Building and is one of the many creative weapons in Bailey’s arsenal to curb the rush of stormwater from the university during rain and melting events. The University must meet the strict guidelines of its MS4 permit governing stormwater issued by the Department of the Environmental Protection.