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Loss of street tree canopy increases stormwater runoff

September 21, 2022

Urban forests have largely been overlooked for the role they play in reducing stormwater runoff volume by using hydrologic processes such as interception (rainfall intercepted by tree canopy), evapotranspiration (the transfer of water from vegetation into the atmosphere) and infiltration (percolation of rainwater into the Earth’s soil). Early research into the effects of trees on urban stormwater runoff used simple estimates based on assumptions of canopy coverage and design storm criteria. In a review of available literature on how capable urban trees are at reducing runoff, the Center for Watershed Protection (2017) found only six studies; three of them used measured data from a single plot, and the other three used models. When identifying gaps in research on the role of trees in stormwater management, Kuehler and others (2017) highlighted the need for studies that scale the local effects of urban trees to the larger sewershed catchment area, allowing a more holistic understanding of the urban tree canopy effects on hydrology.

For these reasons, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service, and the University of Wisconsin, quantified the effect of removing urban street trees and their canopy on stormwater generation in a medium-density residential area. Using a paired-catchment experimental design, rainfall-runoff relations were characterized in two medium-density residential catchments in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, during May through September in 2018–20. Results of the study are detailed in Selbig and others (2022).

During the calibration phase, hydrograph metrics from paired runoff events were used to develop the relation between the control and test catchments with street trees in place. The ability to measure changes to the rainfall-runoff response after removal of tree canopy was made possible by an aggressive tree removal program by the city as a response to rapid infestation from the Agrilus planipennis (emerald ash borer). In March 2020, a total of 31 street trees were removed at the onset of the treatment period, resulting in a loss of 2,990 square meters of canopy over streets, driveways, sidewalks, and grassed areas.

Publication Year 2022
Title Loss of street tree canopy increases stormwater runoff
DOI 10.3133/fs20223074
Authors William R. Selbig, Steven P. Loheide, William Shuster, Bryant C. Scharenbroch, Robert C. Coville, James Kruegler, William Avery, Ralph J. Haefner, David Nowak
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Fact Sheet
Series Number 2022-3074
Index ID fs20223074
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Upper Midwest Water Science Center