Aspect’s Curtis Nickerson and Bryan Berkompas recently participated in a Hackathon with The Nature Conservancy and Microsoft employees. The Hack for Good event focused on developing low-cost stormwater monitoring solutions that could identify pollutants and collect data in real time.
Aspect’s Curtis Nickerson and Bryan Berkompas recently developed a promising new, low-cost, telemetered rain garden performance tool – the Water Detector -- that can help cities and counties improve rain garden performance.
As more people move to western Washington and settle in its urban areas, stormwater runoff from streets, driveways, lawns, and rooftops is recognized as a major source of pollution impacting our waterways. To counter this continuing and growing threat, municipalities are encouraging broader public awareness and tools that public and business can use to clean polluted runoff as close to the source as possible. In this effort, rain gardens have become a major component of municipal stormwater management programs in western Washington.
Rain gardens are a relatively low-cost natural filter and sponge, where runoff can infiltrate into the soil on-site rather than flowing directly into storm drains, streams or lakes. Rain gardens are affordable to install, are an attractive landscaping feature, and are relatively easy for home owners to maintain. In Seattle, rain gardens and associated “Green Stormwater Infrastructure” (GSI) manage nearly 100 million gallons of polluted runoff annually.
While raingardens are seeing more and more adoption across Western Washington, measuring performance has been an area that has seen improvement. Typical methods – such as measuring flow rates--are costly and out-of-reach for typical municipal programs to widely adopt. To help resolve this data quality issue, Berkompas and Nickerson designed the Water Detector to give users a low-cost tool to see how well their rain gardens are performing.
The target users for the Water Detector are municipal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permittees (cities and counties) in Western Washington and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)s promoting the wide-scale use of Low Impact Development (LID) practices, including rain gardens. Recently, all NPDES permittees in Western Washington revised their local development regulations to make LID methods, including rain gardens, “the preferred and commonly-used approach to site development.” Large investments by local governments for rain garden installations have already occurred and will continue to occur under the assumption that these facilities are working as intended. The Water Detector units could be deployed for a relatively low cost at hundreds of rain gardens across the region, providing real-world data to help assess the benefits of using rain gardens for decentralized stormwater flow-control on a broad-scale.
The initial target application for the Water Detector would be to assess a rain garden’s hydraulic performance. The single most important measure of rain garden performance, or lack of performance, is overflow or bypass, when excess runoff flows around or out of the rain garden instead of soaking into the soil. The Water Detector would be used to detect and record when and for how long the water level in a rain garden is at or above this bypass level. Data would then be uploaded automatically to cloud-based data storage via cellular or blue tooth technology. An additional potential application of this technology is monitoring bypass events at engineered stormwater treatment or detention systems to assess/alert when system maintenance is needed. These data will help to assess and improve site evaluation and design methods, document long-term performance, and develop effective maintenance methods for rain gardens.
Prototypes have been developed, and Curtis and Bryan are currently identifying locations to test and deploy their Water Detectors. For more information, reach out to Curtis Nickerson (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Bryan Berkompas (email@example.com).
Aspect welcomes Curtis Nickerson and James Packman! Curtis Nickerson joins as Senior Associate Environmental Scientist, specializing in evaluating and designing stormwater and surface water monitoring programs. James joins as Senior Hydrologist focusing on surface water flow/discharge, water quality, sediment quality, and environmental compliance. Both Curtis and James are in Aspect's Seattle office. Here are five questions we asked to get to know them better.
1. Where are you from? If you’re not from the Pacific Northwest, what brought you here? I grew up in Huntington Beach, in Southern California. My wife and I visited friends in Seattle during a summer road trip in 1992 and decided the summers here were much more tolerable than in Sacramento, where were living while I was in grad school at UC Davis. After graduation, I sent resumes up here and got a couple of offers, so off we moved to the Great Northwest and haven’t looked back since.
2. What inspired you to pursue environmental science? What made you curious about it? As a kid, I loved being in the outdoors. I camped and backpacked all the time and was also a bit of an environmental activist. I knew I wanted to pursue an environmental career as far back as sixth grade, although at the time the best I could define it was “as a forest ranger.” I recall that one of my middle-school teachers told me, “You’ll get over it,” but my eighth-grade science teacher was very supportive and inspiring. As a teenager, I wanted to do my part to improve and protect the environment—participating in many conservation projects from habitat restoration in coastal marshes to building watering holes for bighorn sheep in the Mojave Desert. In college, I took a resource-policy/environmental education track, but after working in consulting for a couple of years decided to switch to a technical/science field, so I went back to get an MS in Water Science.
3. What do you like best about your area of expertise? What excites you and keeps you motivated? I enjoy solving problems in new ways, particularly around environmental data collection. I am excited when I can work with my group to tackle challenges using cutting-edge technology that improves data quality and provides great value to our clients.
4. What do you like to do when you aren’t working? When I’m not working, I’m mostly hanging out with my family – my wife Kim, my son Charlie (17) our dog Sparky and my eldest son Henry (21) when he’s home from college. I am active in Charlie’s Boy Scout Troop, so I get to go on camping trips and other outings regularly with the group. I like to get on my bike, paddle my kayak, and get out fishing when I can, and am trying to do those things more.
5. Where would your dream house be located? Since this is a dream, I’d like my house to be on a remote high country lake, next to the ocean but not too far from a vibrant city – not asking too much, right?
1. Where are you from? If you’re not from the Pacific Northwest, what brought you here? I grew up in the Detroit area - Motor City! It was a childhood filled with fast cars, Rock and Roll, arcade video games at the mall, skiing on small icy hills, and the Tigers winning the World Series in 1984. But Detroit is in the flat Midwest and I yearned for the mountains after several trips “out west” to ski and visit relatives and friends.
I moved to the Pacific Northwest to go to a small liberal arts college, the Evergreen State College. Despite its bubble-like culture in the woods outside of Olympia, Evergreen was a great place to learn. I earned a B.A in English and a B.S. in Geology and Ecology. It was just a couple hours drive to the mountains and I never looked back at the Midwest. I moved to Seattle and continued my studies at the University of Washington, where I earned an M.S. in Forest Engineering with an emphasis on hydrology. I’ve also lived, for short periods, in Colorado at 10,000 feet and in two cities in Israel, one in the coastal plain on the shores of the Mediterranean and the other in the mountains of the Galilee in the north.
2. What inspired you to pursue hydrology? What made you curious about it?
My interest in hydrology and natural sciences in general was first sparked by the creek flowing through the backyard of my childhood home. Almost daily, my friends and I would walk the creek down to the pond in the neighborhood. We would have stick-floating races, get down and dirty with the crawfish, crawl through culverts, and imagine ourselves explorers of the wild. We walked this creek year-round, even when frozen or partially frozen, which often resulted in cold wet feet. Being so close to the creek, groundwater flooding occurred often and our basement would flood during heavy rains. The sump pump in the basement attuned me to how the water got there and helped make the connection in my mind between the rising creek, the eroded banks, the rise and fall of the water table, and our flooded basement.
The other big water influence for me was sailing with my family on the Great Lakes. We sailed for day-trips on Lake St. Clair and weeks-long summertime trips throughout Lake Huron and Lake Erie. Later when I was in grad school visiting Michigan and sailing with my parents, I tried to explain Froude numbers to them. My Dad just laughed and told me to pay attention to where I was steering as I was pinching, sailing too close to the wind, and the sail was luffing. As a former quartermaster in the Navy, he didn’t need to understand Froude numbers to know how to sail fast.
3. What do you like best about your area of expertise? What excites you and keeps you motivated? I often get asked by friends or visitors to Seattle “how’s the water?”. As a scientist, my response to questions is usually another question, so I ask “which water?”. As an essential component of life that is an inherently unstable molecule, I am amazed by the incredible diversity of where water is found, the various forms it takes, its power and fragility, how it can be both a salvation and a danger, and the myriad ways that small actions can have profound effects on natural waters.
What motivates me about working as a hydrologist are the problems to be solved. We know how to clean up dirty water (for the most part), how to make drinkable water from the oceans, how to collect and deliver water efficiently, how to predict rain, and how to conserve and make the most of every drop. But doing all of these things well is an ongoing challenge and can almost always be improved. Through my work, I feel fulfilled knowing that I’ve contributed, however big or small, to the mindful management, conservation, and sustainability of our use of water and impact on it.
4. What do you like to do when you aren’t working? I’m a firm believer in the “work to live” maxim and not the other way around. It’s one of the shared values at Aspect that drew me here. Some of the most enjoyable things I do when I’m not working are:
- Piano. I’m a classical pianist and love music.
- Skiing winter, hiking summer, yoga all year.
- Shabbat. It’s the Hebrew word for Sabbath and refers to a weekly day of rest. It’s a great way to have some down time and recharge after a busy week.
- Family and friends. Spending time with my partner, Andrew, our friends in Seattle and elsewhere, and our parents and siblings and their children. We are close with our nine nieces and nephews, who live in Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Chicago.
5. What five people would be your dream dinner party guests?
- Felix Mendelssohn, one of the great classical composers. He died too young at the age of 38.
- Mordechai, the hero in the Book of Esther, the Purim story. We could use his political savvy as much today as ever.
- Richard Feynman, the late theoretical physicist. His boundless curiosity about the natural world is an ongoing inspiration.
- My great-great-great grandparents. What was their life like in eastern Europe, what is the family tree before that, and what made them immigrate to America?
- My partner, Andrew. We are each other’s bashert (Yiddish for soulmate).
Aspect’s Senior Associate Environmental Scientist Curtis Nickerson will be presenting at Oregon’s ACEC Environmental Water Resources Group (EWRG) on January 25 at the Hawthorne Lucky Lab Brew Pub in Portland. Curtis will talk about lessons learned in his 20 years of chasing storms. He will pass along tips for anticipating trips-ups during sampling and discuss monitoring site selection; innovative instrumentation and methods for monitoring at difficult locations; field procedures and QA/QC activities for flow metering; and water sampling and sediment monitoring.