Purdue University Graduate School
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An Examination of the Interconnected Social and Ecological Dimensions of Stormwater Management

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posted on 2022-04-20, 18:54 authored by Rachel D ScarlettRachel D Scarlett

Land use change is a major cause of degradation to freshwater ecosystems. Excess nutrients and toxins, physical infrastructure, and habitat removal can lead to deleterious impacts on water quality, flooding, and biological integrity. The overarching inquiry of this dissertation was to assess how social and ecological dimensions of stormwater interact to influence stormwater and its management. A three-part study was conducted to investigate the ecological and social dynamics of aquatic ecosystems. In part one, I investigated the impacts of urbanization on stream metabolism— a fundamental ecological process. The proliferation of inexpensive water quality sensors has allowed researchers to investigate stream functional processes at a high temporal resolution. I used high-resolution dissolved oxygen data to estimate gross primary production (GPP) and ecosystem respiration (ER) across 12 urban creeks in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. I used descriptive statistics and regression models to investigate the influence of light, temperature, and hydrological disturbances on GPP and ER. The results demonstrate that urbanization shifts metabolic regimes towards highly productive summers with substantial declines in GPP following summer storm events. My research shows that ER is associated with water temperature and is resistant to hydrological disturbances. These findings have management implications because as summer heat and storms intensify with climate change, my work suggests that stream organisms will become more vulnerable to scour and hypoxia.

In part two, I conducted a systematic literature review to identify salient social norms impacting water quality best management practice (BMP) adoption across urban and rural lands. Furthermore, I synthesized situational factors that mobilize and reproduce social norms associated with BMP adoption. The results demonstrate that social norms create expectations for conventional farming practices and manicured residential lawns, as well as a social responsibility for neighborly cohesion and environmental stewardship. Social norms supporting water quality BMPs were fostered during times of management uncertainty and in response to social sanctions and benefits. I found that social norms supporting water quality BMPs were more readily mobilized when supported by key community leaders, knowledge brokers, and institutional actors.

In part three, I examined if and how an individual’s race, gender, and education level shape one’s concern about and willingness to participate in stormwater management. Stormwater risks can be immediate burdens and at times life-threatening for marginalized people because environmental injustices based on race, gender, and class can dictate exposure to and recovery from environmental risks like flooding and water pollution. Although marginalized groups bear the brunt of environmental risks, they are not likely to be perceived by others as highly concerned about the environment. I investigated differences, if any, in peoples’ willingness to participate in stormwater management based on their race, gender, and educational level by analyzing community opinion surveys in Charlotte, North Carolina. Results suggest that socially marginalized individuals are more concerned about creek flooding than others and subsequently more likely to participate in conservation behaviors. This analysis calls attention to how adverse environmental conditions may shape the perspectives of those experiencing them and facilitate a greater willingness to engage in conservation practices. Collectively, this dissertation highlights the interconnectedness of human and ecological drivers of function and resilience in aquatic freshwater ecosystems with implications for future directions of freshwater management that prioritize social equity and sustain social infrastructures.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Sara McMillan

Additional Committee Member 2

Jake Hosen

Additional Committee Member 3

Zhao Ma

Additional Committee Member 4

P. Suresh Rao