A team of University of Virginia undergraduates won first place in the Virginia Water Environment Association Student Design Competition, making them eligible to represent Virginia at a national competition in the fall.

Civil engineering major Hania Abboud, systems engineering majors Ekaterina Forkin and Jason Jabbour, and environmental sciences major Anna Liang devised the winning design project, which proposes new infrastructure in the courtyard between UVA Engineering’s Olsson and Thornton halls to address stormwater management in the area. Winners were announced following team presentations, which took place by videoconference.

The win comes with the opportunity for the team to compete in New Orleans at the 93rd annual Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference Oct. 3-7, a national event known as WEFTEC.

Brian L. Smith, a professor and chair of the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, advised the students on their proposal. To ensure the design is viable, they collaborated with senior project manager Stephen Dempsey and civil engineer Dawson Garrod in UVA’s Facilities Management office.

That carried weight with the competition’s judges, said Shirley Smith, chair of the Student Activities Committee for the Virginia Water Environment Association and the Virginia Section of the American Water Works Association. In addition to the quality of the team’s presentation, including graphics and 3-D renderings, judges remarked that the plan’s scope has the potential to become a real project, as previous winners have, she said.

“I’ve been so impressed with these students,” Brian Smith said. “The design they came up with proposes practical solutions to real stormwater challenges at the site they selected, and I love that the team is made up of undergraduates in different majors. It’s fantastic how they have taken their work beyond the classroom this year. I feel fortunate to be able to work with students like them.”

Green infrastructure refers to stormwater management practices that restore or mimic natural hydrological processes. Examples include using soils, vegetation and other media to manage rainwater where it falls by capturing the water, encouraging evaporation and using plants to soak up the water. Gray stormwater infrastructure, such as the gutter pipes, sewers and grate systems in use in the courtyard, typically conveys stormwater away from buildings.

Diverting stormwater into nearby streams and rivers can cause flooding when drainage systems are overwhelmed, but it also carries pollutants, nutrients and sediment that harm downstream water resources and the ecosystems that depend on them. With two core goals — one, decreasing water volume, and two, improving the quality of the water entering local and regional waterways from the project site — the UVA team’s proposal calls for a combination of low-impact “best management practices” to work in concert with each other.

The measures include an underground cistern to hold water, four rain gardens at the bottom of the steep slope on the east side of the courtyard, and new river birch trees. Rain gardens are bioretention systems, infrastructure designed to slow down and filter runoff using soil and plants to remove nutrients and pollutants from the water before it flows into the watershed. The plan places additional biofiltration systems using a medium that can handle high flow rates at two storm drains, and permeable pavers in place of the existing concrete sidewalks. Finally, to encourage environmentally friendly transportation and attract students to the area, the team added lamps and an electric scooter charging station, all solar-powered, to the site.

“We hope our design provides an educational opportunity for engineering students and has an aesthetic value for the courtyard as well,” Abboud said. “We wanted to show how improving stormwater management at one small site could have a bigger impact on larger watersheds in our area.”

Jabbour also said the idea of small local efforts leading to wider change was important to the team. “We envision that a migration to sustainable infrastructure can start at the community level,” he said. “As students who essentially consider Thornton and Olsson halls our home, we wanted to take initiative and propose an improvement to a site that is precious to us.”

UVA Engineering Systems and Environment students compete via Zoom

UVA team members present their design to judges and organizers of the Virginia Water Environment Association Student Design Competition by video conference. Presenting remotely didn’t stop the UVA team from taking top honors.