Balancing the Water Budget: the effect of plant functional type on infiltration to harvest ratios in stormwater bioretention cells

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Virginia Tech


Stormwater bioretention cells (BRCs) are a variety of green stormwater infrastructure with the potential to restore pre-urban water balance, provided they can be tailored to infiltrate and evapotranspire (i.e., harvest) urban runoff in proportions consistent with pre-urban hydrologic conditions. This paper evaluates their capacity to do so, focusing on evapotranspirative harvest, which is relatively understudied, and the capacity of CSR (Competitve, Stress-tolerant, and Ruderal) functional type to serve as an overarching framework characterizing the water use strategy of BRC plants. The goal is to determine if harvest (and therefore the ratio of urban runoff infiltrated to harvested; the I:H ratio) might be fine-tuned to meet pre-urban values in BRCs through informed manipulation of plant community composition. This study focuses on 3 critical plant water use traits, the turgor loss point, the point of incipient water stress, and maximum stomatal conductance. A global plant traits meta-analysis identified degree of plant competitiveness and stress tolerance as significant determinants of all three water use traits, with stem type (woody vs herbaceous) also being significant, but only for turgor loss point. Based on these results, six water use scenarios appropriate for plants with different CSR type/stem type combinations were developed. BRC plants spanning the range of CSR types necessary to actionize these scenarios were determined to be available in eight major climate zones of the coterminous US, suggesting that regulating plant water use in BRCs using CSR is likely feasible. Hydraulic simulations (Hydrus 1D) were conducted for each scenario in all eight climate zones and revealed significant differences in evapotranspirative harvest and I:H ratios in simulated BRCs. Competitive woody plants had the highest evapotranspiration and lowest I:H ratios; 1.5-1.8 times more evapotranspiration and a 1.6-2 times lower I:H ratio than stress tolerant herbaceous plants, on average, across climate zones. Despite these significant differences, no simulated BRC in any climate zone was capable of reproducing pre-urban I:H ratios, regardless of plant type. More water was infiltrated than harvested in all scenarios and climates with the inverse being true for all pre-urban conditions. This suggests that absent additional sources of harvest (e.g., use of BRC water for nonpotable purposes such as toilet flushing and outdoor irrigation, or adoption of novel BRC designs that promote lateral exfiltration, stimulating "extra" evapotranspiration from nearby landscapes), BRCs will be unable to restore pre-urban water balance on their own. If true, then using BRCs in combination with other green technologies (particularly those biased towards harvest), may be the best path forward for balancing urban water budgets.



bioretention cells, infiltration, evapotranspiration, water budget, functional traits, turgor loss point, stomatal conductance, point of incipient water stress