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A decision support tool to promote non-expert awareness on urban water systems issues and intervention opportunities in Massachusetts.




It is well documented the increase in migration from rural to urban areas will exacerbate environmental conditions in countries where population is rapidly growing. It is estimated around 44 percent of the global population lives within a 150 kilometers from the sea. [1] Non-point source pollution in urbanized areas will have a much more profound impact on local and regional estuaries and watershed in the upcoming decades.

Storm water runoff in urban area is one of many causes of phosphorous and nutrient discharge in our waterways causing toxic algae to grow. Every summer patches of blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, are known to be spotted in parts of the Charles River. Contact with the blue-algae in large amounts can pose serious environmental challenges can be harmful to marine aquatic life, humans, and mammals. By the end of 2016, EPA regulations will require 260 municipalities that make of the Charles River Watershed to remove 54 percent of phosphorus that contaminate the Charles River. [2]

Fig 1. Charles River Watershed: Impervious surfaces

Best management practices [3] utilizing green infrastructure strategies are gaining attention from municipalities as a popular method to allow water to drain into the ground rather than it being released into the waterways. This proposal aims to advocate for a decision support tool for decision makers, planners, residents, community leaders in the Charles River Watershed to quantify the impact of green infrastructure planning alternative in pre-development and post-development scenarios. The scenarios will focus on the macro-scale for high level decision making. Thus, the calculations will aim to quantify only the annual impact to the water system and not “extreme events” or rainfall events in daily basis.  

Category of the action

Mitigation/Adaptation, Changing public attitudes about climate change

What actions do you propose?

The decision support tool focuses on meaningful estimations for early planning stages rather than a modeling tool. Its main focus is to promote civic awareness on environmental benefits from best management practices. The proposal is to create a working prototype decision making support tool to estimate phosphorus load on the Charles River Watershed based on local soil conditions, land use, impervious surface, and historic rainfall records. The objective is utilize existing equations [4] to estimate phosphorus load in relationship to three different green infrastructure alternatives (i.e. street planter, green roofs, porous pavement).

We concluded with the best to our knowledge that after reviewing numerous stormwater tools, there are enormous opportunities for improvements in integrating user friendly design and data-driven insights on urban water management performances (e.g. pollutant load and runoff reduction). One of the well-known existing tools integrating best management practice screening is the EPA’s National Stormwater Calculator. The primary parameters for analysis includes site conditions (e.g. soil types and land cover) with historic rainfall records along with other environmental parameters is suited for both local and regional scale projects to assess runoff reduction [5], without the pollutant loading output based on finer grain planning insights and user friendly design intelligence. Our proposal seeks to bridge this gap by combining local scale planning insights (e.g. land use, sidewalk width, water table depth, roof footprint, parcel dimension) and how it impacts the overall watershed phosphorus load while providing a user friendly interface for educational promotion purposes.

Fig 2. The algorithmic process 

Fig 3. What if scenarios?

The contributors of this proposal have worked on a similar tool but with a different output goal other than phosphorous reduction (e.g. runoff, impervious surface, water harvesting, etc.) while as researchers at the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure [6].For the purpose to demonstrate the feasibility and capacity of the team’s knowledge on computational design and applied modelling refer to Fig. 5 and website. We are well aware of the scientific, technical, and methodological challenges for the implementation of this proposal.

Fig 4. Phosphorous removal with aggregated green infrastructure types and priority based on best management practices 

Fig 5. Zofnass Information Tool. Intervention opportunities for green infrastructure.




Who will take these actions?

The web interactive platform enables multiple stakeholders (e.g. local residents, planners, designers, decision makers) concerning the Charles River Watershed in participating ‘if what’ scenarios for future green infrastructure planning. It is critical to build a tool that engages the stakeholders through data visualization and interactivity. We want the website to be comprehensive and easily used in meetings in the town halls and in classrooms at schools. We have the support of the Charles River Watershed Association [7] to help us disseminate the effort and coordinate with the watershed communities.


Where will these actions be taken?

The location is in the Charles River Watershed community in Massachusetts. Though, we consider this tool as a prototype for other watersheds in US and the rest of the world. The computational framework can be applied in other communities that share a watershed. We envision the decision support tool on the Charles River Watershed as the founding stone of a global network of watershed platforms. The local water system issues and the potential of green infrastructure will be highlighted, while a collaboration and exchange of ideas fostered between different watershed communities.

What are other key benefits?

The web tool seeks to create awareness of green infrastructure role in protecting rivers and water quality measures.  It is critical now to prepare  city stakeholders to learn to cooperate using digital platforms, and to cultivate an awareness of the big picture. Across the US the challenges vary: from stormwater management on the East Coast, to water quality cases such as in Flint, or drought and water scarcity as in California. A quick overview and good understanding of the relations within urban water systems can be a catalyst for stakeholders to work in unison in order to better solve the problems and improve the quality of life in cities.

What are the proposal’s costs?

The team seeks to develop a working web prototype within 6 months. The ideal budget exceeds 15,000 dollars to create a working web platform along with community stakeholder engagement endeavors. 

Time line

By the end of the 2016, the beta web platform will be launched to receive further feedback and comments from various experts in the field. 

Related proposals

The location of the proposal is the same.


1. Un atlas of the oceans.

2. Abel, David. “EPA moves to require municipalities to curb Charles River pollution.” Boston Globe Feb 22, 2016.

3. Coastal Stormwater Management Through Green Infrastructure A Handbook for Municipalities, EPA. 2014.

4. Virginia Runoff Reduction Method: Compliance Spreadsheet User’s Guide & Documentatoin, Version 3.0. 2016.

5. National Stormwater Calculator, EPA. As of 15 November 2015.

6. Zofnass Information Tool on the Urban Water System of Chelsea MA. Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure. Harvard Graduate School of Design. 2016

7. Charles River Watershed Association.