Storm Over the U-M
The city and county have strict new stormwater requirements. But the university isn't on board.
by Julie Halpert
From the June, 2015 issue
On June 27, 2013, a storm in Ann Arbor delivered 2.2 inches of rain in three hours and caused a flood so severe that students were kayaking in the street at the corner of Division and Hill.
It was no fluke. From 1980 to 2010, the city received 25 percent more rain than it did in the previous thirty-year period. The increase is expected to continue, due to climate change.
Since 2008, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County have spent more than $21 million on joint projects to improve water quality and reduce flooding, and the city has spent millions more on its own. Yet Evan Pratt, the county's water resources commissioner, worries that unless more is done, a major storm could still overwhelm the system.
Vince Caruso, coordinating member of the Allen Creek Watershed Group, emails that his group believes that "the city is facing loss of life, health and up to 1,200 to 1,500 homes and business[es] affected and billions in losses in flood damage unless we do more flood mitigation." Last summer's storm in the Detroit area, Caruso says, "would seem like a fair warning of what could happen here."
That storm dumped up to 5.5 inches of rain across Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties. Two people died, and cleanup and repair cost an estimated $1.1 billion. Pratt, too, believes that a flood of that magnitude could affect Ann Arbor in his lifetime, and says, "I believe loss of life is a very real threat."
Pratt says the city is doing its part to minimize that danger, but the U-M is not. The city follows stringent standards developed by the county to prevent a looming flood disaster, and Pratt says these changes already have reduced local flooding. But the university isn't subject to the city's rules, and Pratt and other officials say that despite their urgings, it's chosen not to adopt the stricter standards voluntarily. University planner Sue Gott emails that the U-M is held to the same state
standards as every other entity in Michigan outside Washtenaw County, and "we always strive to meet or exceed this standard."
Why doesn't the university have to obey local laws? Jim Kosteva, now the U-M's director of community relations, explained it to the Observer in 1990, when he was a state representative: "on campus, within the boundaries of campus property, a local ordinance does not apply. The campus is like its own little fiefdom ... It can have its own rules and laws" (see box, p. 34).
With the university planning nearly $1.5 billion in building improvements, city and county officials see a prime opportunity to improve stormwater management and reduce the risk of flooding--but only if the university can be persuaded to incorporate stronger mitigation measures. "Why not do it right?" Pratt asks.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regulates the discharge of pollutants from the campus into stormwater drainage systems. Christe Alwin, environmental quality specialist for the MDEQ, says the university is "doing a great job" managing stormwater under its state permit. But when it comes to redeveloping existing sites--the great majority of all construction on campus--the state demands much less than the city does.
Under state rules, most redeveloped sites must retain only a "first flush," the first inch of rain that falls. So when, for example, the university replaces a parking lot with a building that covers the same amount of land, generally no new stormwater protection is required. Even if the new building does increase the amount of impervious area on the site, it is required to deal only with a "bankful" storm, or 2.35 inches of rain in a twenty-four-hour period.
The city/county standard for redevelopment is much tougher. New buildings have to manage a "100-year event" that delivers 5.11 inches of rain over twenty-four hours. Such big storms increased by roughly 50 percent from 1961 to 2013, Pratt says--adding that last August's storm in metro Detroit was classified as a "370-year" event.
The university "designs to a much lower standard," says Jerry Hancock, the city's stormwater and floodplain programs coordinator. Its new buildings retain only about "a fifth to a half" of the stormwater they would have to manage under the city/county rules, he says.
Pratt points to the U-M's planned new athletic facility on the former Edwards Brothers property on South State as an example. Plans call for releasing up to 40,140 gallons of stormwater per minute from the site--more than twelve times what the city would allow.
The university is "not even in the ballpark of what we require of private owners," says Hancock. He calls the failure to implement better stormwater controls on campus "a complete missed opportunity."
Gott says the university prefers a regional approach. She says it's more efficient to construct one large basin for stormwater runoff than scattered smaller ones, and cites several projects where the university has gone further than what the state requires.
Terry Alexander, who heads the U-M's Office of Campus Sustainability, points to the North Campus Detention Basins, which capture runoff from approximately ninety acres of land while also providing a habitat for wildlife. On Central Campus, a one-million-gallon holding tank below the parking deck at the Life Sciences Institute provides flood control to fifty acres near the dental school, and also allows sediment to settle. "This provides an opportunity to prevent flooding in a number of areas and clean the water before it goes down to the river," Alexander says. The university also built step pools at Nichols Arboretum to slow runoff coming into School Girls' Glen, installed porous paving in parking lots along Fuller, and planted green roofs at the new Mott Children's Hospital and the Ross School of Business.
But Hancock says that the regional approach is "the opposite of the national trend." It's easier to deal with water where it falls, he says, than to accumulate it in a large facility; on-site infiltration is also better for removing sediments and pollutants. The million-gallon holding tank, he adds, handles less than a one-inch storm. Pratt agrees that the North Campus Detention Basins are helpful--but notes that they serve only 90 acres of the 800-acre campus.
Gott says in a follow-up email that the list represents "only a handful of examples where we have exceeded our permit requirements, electing to provide additional public benefit." She says the university has missions for academics and research, clinical care, and community service, and land use decisions must support its mission. When it's "prudent," the university will look for additional opportunities for stormwater relief, she says. "We all want to do the right thing, and we all want to do good work, and we all look for mutual benefit. I actually think we do a great job of looking for creative opportunities to be effective with our investments."
Jim Kosteva says many university projects support the city's plans and desires, including the goal of greater residential density downtown. And Gott emails that the university supports the community infrastructure in many ways besides stormwater, "such as periodic contributions to local road repaving, up-sizing water mains, removal of well over 500 footer drains to alleviate sanitary flooding issues, and bike paths."
The city, however, requires private developers to do much more--and holds itself to the same standard. The new Justice Center and remodeled City Hall are designed to hold all the water that falls on the site, even in a hundred-year storm. The parking lot uses permeable pavement that allows water to soak into the ground; the patio facing Huron has a giant rain garden with a huge cistern underneath; and portions of the building have a green roof.
Like the university, the Ann Arbor Public Schools are exempt from the city's laws. Yet Hancock points out that when Skyline High School was built, AAPS far exceeded the state's standards. Every drop of rain that falls on the site is captured in three large detention ponds, and the water is then reused to irrigate the baseball fields.
Pratt wishes the U-M would adopt that philosophy. "We are saying to the university, 'Please get into a more preventative mode.'"
"Ann Arbor faces serious stormwater challenges," mayor Christopher Taylor says. "We have an aging system that was not designed for the substantial increase in precipitation we have experienced over the past years." Taylor says it's essential to facilitate more collaboration with the university, and says stormwater planning is one of the areas where he hopes to "make progress."
Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, says she's encouraging all communities to adopt the Washtenaw County standards. "The intensity of storms we're getting is increasing, and systems are not built to deal with so much volume in such a short amount of time," she says. Rubin agrees with Gott that there have been several instances where the U-M has exceeded its permit requirements, and she's impressed by the pervious surface installed on a parking adjacent to the new Munger dorm (see box, p. 34). "But they haven't applied those principles to all of their buildings," she says.
Rubin is particularly concerned about the university's apparent lack of interest in helping to restore Millers Creek, which has deteriorated due to decades of development on North Campus. When Pfizer headquarters was nearby, it partnered with the watershed council, the city, and the county to clean up the creek. The council received a $1.2 million state grant, and Pfizer planned to invest $800,000 toward stream restoration. But after Pfizer left town and the U-M bought the site, Rubin says, she was told the university wasn't ready to commit to the project. Kosteva says it's still possible at some point that the university will undertake improvements to the Millers Creek watershed.
The damage stormwater can cause is especially stark at School Girls' Glen in the Arboretum. An 1870 etching of the ravine, published in Scribner's Magazine, shows it filled with plants, flowers, and wildlife. But in the twentieth century, university construction on the hillside below Observatory St. overwhelmed the glen. School of Public Health buildings, the Mosher-Jordan and Mary Markley dorms, and other projects all sent more water racing down into the Arb. Today the once-scenic glen is just an eroded area full of rocks and fallen trees, bordered by a giant sewer pipe tattooed with graffiti.
Bob Grese, director of the Arb and the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and a professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, says the step pools that the university installed in 2001 slowed the water's flow, but did nothing to decrease the volume. He's disappointed that the university isn't including stormwater detention in the new School of Public Health and other nearby buildings. He says a 2002 study recommended that parking lots across from Markley have low-impact design, including planting beds to capture rainwater and allow it to infiltrate on site. "None of that was done," he says. "To me, that doesn't align with one of the university's main sustainability goals, protecting the Huron River."
Grese acknowledges that detaining water in the parking lots would mean sacrificing space for cars. "It's an area that's highly stressed in terms of parking, but if your goal is really protecting the Huron River, that's one of the choices you make." He notes the city and university worked together to install step pools to slow runoff from Harvard Pl., a project that won an award from the American Public Works Association. "That kind of partnership would be ideal to solve the problem in School Girls' Glen," he says.
Grese took Sue Gott and other university officials on a tour of the glen last fall and says he was told they would study the problem. "I'm still waiting to hear back on next steps," he says.
Craig Hupy, the city's public services area administrator, says stormwater management has come up in quarterly meetings held with the university over the past eighteen months. He has requested a joint work group on the issue, but says the university hasn't yet set it up. "I look forward to having a good working relationship with the university and generally we do," Hupy says. "But we don't share the same values on stormwater."
Bill Stack of the Maryland-based Center for Watershed Protection says universities have difficult trade-offs to make when deciding on stormwater protection. "You can always engineer a solution," Stack says, "but it's very costly to control a 100-year storm." Yet despite the cost, that's just what Western Michigan University is doing.
Under president John Dunn, who has made sustainability a priority, Western has set a goal to infiltrate all stormwater from both new development and redevelopment. If it achieves that, Hancock says, Western will exceed even the standards set by Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.
WMU won't proceed with any project if it increases the volume of runoff entering Kalamazoo's storm drains: all stormwater must be managed on site through mechanisms like green roofs, underground detention basins, and bioswales. WMU environmental specialist Lu DeBoef says this can make for tough decisions: people were upset when the school replaced an asphalt parking lot near the football stadium with a large retention basin. But the effort seems to have paid off--last year there was a huge storm, and for the first time, the area didn't flood.
In April, Evan Pratt received an email from Sue Gott indicating a willingness to discuss stormwater planning, Pratt says he is "optimistic and hopeful there will be some follow-up this time." And he says he's eager to work with the university.
"The city and private developers are committed to being leaders and best in reducing flooding," Pratt says. "And we hope that someday the university decides to modify its policy to join us."
Charlie Munger's Neighborhood
To ninety-one-year-old billionaire Charlie Munger, the Munger Graduate Residences nearing completion at the corner of Division and Madison will be "a huge competitive advantage for Michigan." To city stormwater specialist Jerry Hancock, the $185 million grad student dorm represents another lost opportunity to reduce the university's stormwater footprint.
Munger's math studies at the U-M were interrupted by service in the Army Air Corps during WWII. After the war, he graduated from Harvard Law School and moved into the business world. Since 1978, he's been vice chairman of the insurance and investment company Berkshire Hathaway--Berkshire chairman Warren Buffett calls Munger his "partner."
Munger funded renovations of the Law Library and the Lawyers Club at the U-M law school before giving the U-M $110 million--the largest gift in its history--for the eight-story, 370,000-square-foot grad student dorm. Munger told the Chronicle of Philanthropy last year that he supports student housing because universities don't: "If you're an elite place and you've got 10 applicants for every spot, it's perfectly natural to think, 'Why the hell do we need to do any more for the students?'" he was quoted as saying. "I don't think you abuse your best customers merely because you can get by with it." When it opens this fall, his namesake residence will have room for 630 students, most of them paying $850 a month for a private bedroom and bathroom in a seven-bedroom apartment.
University planner Sue Gott says the Munger project typifies the U-M's proactive approach to stormwater management, with rain gardens and porous pavement. There is also an in-ground infiltration system to take advantage of the site's very sandy soil. But to Hancock, that's not nearly enough. He points out that the university's state permit requires it to deal only with the first inch of rainfall on site--even though runoff flows down toward the corner of Hill and Division, where students were kayaking after the storm two years ago.
Citing a draft report released in April, Hancock says that if the university adopted the city/county standards, it could eliminate much of the flooding on Central Campus and greatly reduce flooding along Hill. But, the city stormwater specialist adds, if the university had applied those standards to the Munger Residences, "the building might have been smaller to allow for more space to infiltrate or store water."
The project exemplifies the university's independence in other ways as well. The Munger Residences are more than twice as tall as the city's zoning for the site would have permitted, and its seven-bedroom units also would violate city rules: Ann Arbor doesn't allow apartments with more than six bedrooms--and since the 2012 City Place fiasco, when a developer jammed twenty-four six-bedroom units onto a small site, it's been looking at ways to discourage even those.
But the big apartments, like everything else, are part of Munger's vision. "This gets a lot of students together from different disciplines," he explains in a phone interview. He wants students in close quarters, because his goal is intellectual cross-pollination. His gift includes $10 million to fund the "Coleman-Munger Fellows," described in a press release as "a residential society that encourages scholarship and interaction from many fields of study."
Munger says he isn't concerned about the stormwater issue and is surprised that anyone is, given the dorm's uphill location. He doesn't think graduate students will balk at the price either. "It's a bargain" compared to the "inferior housing" offered by private landlords, he says.
"It will be mobbed," he predicts. "The problem will be telling people they can't get in."
[Originally published in June, 2015.]
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