Compacted soil affects local aquatic life and water supply

Students enjoying the warm, sunny afternoon in Storrs. Spring has finally begun.  (Tyler Benton/The Daily Campus)

Students enjoying the warm, sunny afternoon in Storrs. Spring has finally begun.  (Tyler Benton/The Daily Campus)

A survey was recently distributed to University of Connecticut students regarding their knowledge and concerns about soil compaction and its effects on the nearby Willimantic community.

The survey was created by a group of students in the Environmental Studies’ class, Integrating Humans and the Environment.

A requirement for the class is finding and implementing solutions for a local environmental issue.

“We’re learning about a variety of ways humans impact or use the environment and sustainable solutions to a variety of issues,” Dr. Laura Cisneros, one of the instructors for the class, said.

One group decided to tackle the issue of impermeable surfaces, such as concrete or compacted soil, and how the runoff from these surfaces impacts the surrounding environment.

“When it rains all that storm water that hits that surface can’t penetrate [it] and, in the end, it ends up creating flooding issues as well as taking all the pollutants that are on the ground and washing that into local freshwater systems,” Cisneros said.

The group has identified multiple sites on campus that are compacted and is working to find various solutions to the problem.

“These specific areas are causing a lot of unintended runoff,” Melissa Gualtieri, one of the group members and senior environmental studies major said. “Many things happen, such as the water picking up pollutants from the impermeable surfaces, erosion along the sides of sidewalks, which is aesthetically unpleasing, and the fact that groundwater cannot be recharged into underground aquifers.” 

The runoff generated at UConn flows into the Fenton River or Eagleville Brook and has a negative effect on the aquatic life there.

“Because of the pollutants picked up from runoff, this affects aquatic life by depleting their oxygen source due to excess nitrogen in the waters or creating a bioaccumulation problem within the aquatic life itself,” Gualtieri said.

We’re learning about a variety of ways humans impact or use the environment and sustainable solutions to a variety of issues.
— Dr. Laura Cisneros

These rivers feed into the reservoir that serves the Willimantic community.

“Since the Willimantic reservoir is a source for drinking water provided by Windham Water Works, it is important that the pollutants remain out of the reservoir to avoid public health issues as time goes on,” Gualtieri said.

The survey regarding these issues fulfills the environmental education awareness aspect of the project, Cisneros said.

“Many folks are unaware of the impact of storm water on our local freshwater systems,” Cisneros said.

“The survey was put out as public awareness and to gauge the knowledge of UConn students to see if they really know the impacts and repercussions of compacted soil and impermeable surfaces,” Gualtieri said.

Gualtieri’s group is currently working with different departments at UConn to explore solutions they can implement on campus.

The students approached Robert Flowers, the associate director of UConn’s Landscaping department, about some of these options.

Flowers said the compacted soil on campus is a result of people repeatedly walking on paths not designated as sidewalks.

“You can see where everybody walks where there’s not a sidewalk and create the desired paths which wear down the grass, compact the soil, which then prevents the grass from growing because the roots can’t sustain in the compacted soil and eventually leads to additional erosion,” Flowers said.

Flowers said while the university aims to create walkways for the most commonly travelled paths, people will still, inevitably, take alternate routes.

“You can’t put a sidewalk in every path where every person is going to be going from one point to another and that’s why you end up with the desired paths where people are walking rather than following the sidewalks,” Flowers said.

When replanting grass, landscaping must prepare the area by aerating, loosening or even excavating the area to reverse the effects of compacting in order for the grass to take root and grow.

“It’s not an issue when the area is prepared properly before it goes in which is something that we do if we’re seeding [or] sodding,” Flowers said.

There are multiple ways to remedy the problem of soil compaction, something both UConn Landscaping and Gualtieri’s group have been looking into.

“We have come up with several solutions, such as soil amendments,” Gualtieri said. These amendments include putting things into the compacted soil that would increase its porosity and permeability so that the water goes back into the soil and not turn into runoff.”  

In some areas, grass has been replaced with mulch or gravel but in others Landscaping is still trying to let it grow.

“There are other areas where we continue to try to grow grass because aesthetically it would be the best thing for there,” Flowers said. “Ultimately it’s better for water absorption, to reduce the runoff, so that we get more water that goes back into the ground and the ground water supply rather than resulting in increased surface water tension.”  

Gualtieri’s group has also created an interactive map of areas around campus where the soil is compacted to raise awareness about the issue and hopefully inspire people to change their behavior.  

“This will hopefully raise more awareness to the students and staff here at UConn and let them know that sometimes cutting across the grass is not always the most environmentally friendly option,” Gualtieri said.


Anna Zarra Aldrich is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at anna.aldrich@uconn.edu. She tweets @ZarraAnna.