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Optimization of bioretention systems through application of ecological theory

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Current design of bioretention systems is intended to intercept and retain stormwater, enhance infiltration, and remove organic particulates, nutrients, pathogens, metals, and other contaminants using natural processes that derive from the interactions of water, soil, microbes, plants, and animals. Most bioretention systems function as isolated patches of various shapes and sizes surrounded by impervious surface. A significant body of ecological theory has been developed that addresses the relationships among species composition, diversity, and ecosystem function, and how these vary with spatial structure. Here we highlight how such theories may be applied to improve the efficiency or effectiveness of bioretention systems. We consider (1) the role of plant and animal species that function as ecosystem engineers, (2) biodiversity–ecosystem function relationships, (3) complexity and stability, (4) disturbance and succession, and (5) spatial theory. Future testing of the utility of these theories may occur through incorporation of experiments into the design of bioretention systems or through meta‐analysis of systems that span a range of configurations and biotic features. WIREs Water 2015, 2:259–270. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1072 This article is categorized under: Water and Life > Conservation, Management, and Awareness Engineering Water > Sustainable Engineering of Water Science of Water > Water Quality
Examples of plant and animal ecosystem engineers and their actions in natural treatment systems. (a) Melaleuca sp. (b) Oligochaeta Note: the oligochaete (earthworm) is not drawn to scale.
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Google earth images showing a network of bioretention units at Elmer Avenue in Los Angeles. This is referred to as a green street. Shape and proximity to other bioretention units or vegetated areas may affect development of plant and animal species that promote desired functions.
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Four hypotheses addressing mechanisms underlying biodiversity and function, applied to bioretention systems. (a) Sampling effect: when more species are present the probability of having the best functioning species (in this case for N removal) is greatest. (b) Complementarity: different vegetation taxa excel at different water purification functions; when they co‐occur system performance is maximized. (c) Insurance hypotheses: different species survive and perform better at different times, for example, due to different climate tolerances. (d) Facilitation: specific species may promote the presence of others (in this example vegetation enhances oligochaetes), enhancing overall system function.
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Water and Life > Conservation, Management, and Awareness
Science of Water > Water Quality
Engineering Water > Sustainable Engineering of Water

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