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The City Journals

Natural History Museum science talk focuses on more effective stormwater use

Jan 13, 2020 01:48PM ● By Jenniffer Wardell

Plans for the Landscape Lab redesign of the Williams Building property, including a water splitter box and an above-ground overflow channel. (Photo courtesy of the University of Utah)

By Jenniffer Wardell | [email protected]

Can rainwater help us keep greener yards?

That's the big question at the Natural History Museum of Utah's next Sunday Science Salon, set for Jan. 12 at 1 p.m. Led by Sarah Jack Hinners, Ph.D., the salon will talk about the work currently being done by the University of Utah's Landscape Lab. On a larger level, it discusses whether or not it's possible to create environmentally friendly green landscapes in a hot, dry climate.

"We want to use water more sustainably without having to turn to rocks and cactus," Hinners said. "We all love greenery, and don't want to have to live without it."

The Landscape Lab is a project of the University of Utah’s Center for Ecological Planning + Design. The team is redesigning the property around the Williams Building, located in the university’s Research Park, increasing the ecological diversity and function of the area. They’re also increasing recreation opportunities in the area. 

"It's not really ecological restoration, more like ecological revitalization," said Hinners, explaining that restoration would mean returning the space to its original state. "We're making it more ecologically and socially alive than it is now."

In addition to that revitalization, the team is also designing the space to be able to test research questions about urban stream restoration, urban runoff management, use of public space, and more. The lab will give researchers a more controllable setting to put ideas into practice and see whether they could be beneficial when applied to a larger setting.  

"We don't have all the answers, but we know we want to do things differently,” she said. 

A major area where the team is looking to do things differently is in the use of stormwater runoff. Though Utah cities are currently set up to get stormwater into gutters and storm drains as quickly as possible, the Landscape Lab team sees it as a missed opportunity. 

"Right now, our city sees water as something we have to move out of the landscape as quickly as possible," she said. "At the same time, we use potable (culinary) water to keep our landscapes green. It doesn't make sense."

At the Sunday Science Salon, Hinners will outline the project and its goals. She’ll also update the audience on the lab’s progress and discuss different theories being tested. 

“I think it will be an interactive talk, with lots of time for questions and discussion afterwards,” she said. 

The project has been in development for years, and is a branch-off of the university’s work with Red Butte Creek. The creek runs through the University of Utah’s campus, and more than a decade ago a group of faculty and students decided they needed to pay more attention to it. 

"We wanted to call attention to it within the University and be better stewards of it," she said. 

In addition to protecting Red Butte and other creeks, the Landscape Lab is also hoping to preserve the state’s flower beds, gardens and parks. Though sustainable gardening advice currently recommends replicating Utah’s desert landscapes, the team hopes that storm water runoff will open the door to other alternatives.

"(The Landscape Lab team) wants this to be the beginning of a valley-wide conversation about water and sustainability," she said. "We're looking for a solution that allows us to stay green even if our water supply gets stretched thin."

By preserving that green, she said the Landscape Lab will hopefully have an emotional benefit as well as a psychological one. 

"The importance of beauty, and having that beauty around us in everyday life," she said. "That's what our landscapes provide. That's what our parks provide. That's kind of at the core of what we're trying to protect."

The Sunday Science Salons are held the second Sunday of every month now through March in the meeting spaces on the fifth floor of the museum. The forums are included in the price of admission, but seating is limited and first come, first served.