Helping cities manage stormwater runoff: Bill Shuster

Bill Shuster is a research hydrologist with the USEPA, based in Cincinnati, OH. He recently overheard his daughter explaining his work to her friend. She said, “My dad plays with mud and watches water go into the ground,” according to Shuster, who adds, “This pretty much sums up my work as a research hydrologist.” This day-in-the-life interview looks at Shuster’s work life working with urban soils, soil surveys, and using his daily work to interact with the public about soil science.

Soil Horizons: Why did you choose soil science as a career?

Shuster: I had always been interested in agriculture, but as a city kid, there were not many opportunities to practice or learn about agriculture. After completing my bachelor’s (physics, University of Michigan), I applied to a farm apprentice program in Maine (the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, still going strong) and worked on a family farm for a few months. I had contacted the USDA National Agricultural Library about careers in soil science. Later that year, I visited a friend in Columbus, OH and happened to go to a job fair at Ohio State University. I was hired on the spot as a technician to run the soil physics laboratory. I looked at this as a way to get into the field, gain practical experience, and it was a pretty good job. After that, I ran a farm for Ohio State, so I have had a lot of experience in agriculture. I miss it. (Shuster later completed his Ph.D. studies at Ohio State.)

group with Bill Shuster

Soil Horizons: What is your specific area of expertise?

Shuster: I conduct research in an understudied area of soil science: how water cycles through urban ecosystems. Soils are a piece of the puzzle. We know very little about urban soils, which were not explicitly mapped in past soil survey efforts, but are learning more through these intentional field assessment and research efforts. 

Soil Horizons: How did you start your research in cities like Detroit and Cleveland?

Shuster: I worked with regional technical staff to help solve an enforcement case that fell under the Clean Water Act. In Cleveland, and more than 700 other U.S. cities, urban and suburban areas feed a lot of stormwater volume into combined and separated sewer systems, causing them to malfunction. I noted that there was plenty of vacant land mass that might be able to absorb some of this massive volume of stormwater.

To use these vacant lots, I knew that we would have to get out, make measurements, and identify the soils that were actually there. My team started out in Cleveland, and we are now systematically looking at cities that represent each of the major soil orders in different cities around the U.S. We use our data to look into whether soils and landscapes are suitable for green infrastructure.

With Detroit, we knew that data like this would aid in the current effort to understand the demolition process. The data can help the city expedite demolitions in a greener way, and contribute to the development of a new approach to wastewater management.

Soil Horizons: Are the environments—soil-wise, political, economic—quite varied in your research cities?

diagram of a sewer system

Shuster: Every city is an adventure and a challenge in planning and logistics. We work in some of the oldest areas of the cities, areas that have undergone a lot of change. We have a unique opportunity to meet citizens, who are often surprised to find a federal scientist interested in their area. We generate interest when we take a deep soil core and reveal tens of thousands of years of soil development. We’ve found where sand dunes were located and where a fireplace hearth sat. Most of the people we have seen in the field have an intuitive sense of what we are doing and how it relates to correcting sewer system malfunctions. I wish that the renovation of these systems and implementation of effective green infrastructure could happen faster, though. 

Soil Horizons: You mentioned [during a recent talk at a conference] that in Detroit many of the soils are mostly undisturbed because the housing developments were built quickly, to accommodate the explosion of the automotive industry. How did that affect the soils?

Shuster: The soil texture and layering in Detroit vary a bit, but what is consistent is the depth to an impermeable lacustrine material at about 4 or 5 ft. This is why in some areas, especially on the east side, basements are regular height, but not all of the basement structures sit entirely below the ground surface. When we take the time out to determine what is actually below our feet, identify the soils, and make measurements to characterize their hydrology, then we can use actual data to make decisions about how cities can use different parcels of land.

Soil Horizons: Is the process the same from city to city?

Shuster: We have developed and refined a soil hydrologic assessment protocol. We use the same techniques from city-to-city, so that we have some consistency and basis for comparison. We generally work in parks and vacant lots, and we work closely with local sewer departments and City Hall staffs to identify and get access to these sites. Since we’ve never been to most of the areas that we will work in, we have to allow for changes, and try to maintain a balance between coverage and spatial resolution.

soil scientists look at soil core

Soil Horizons: You said “we are asking our soils a lot more than they are designed for.” Where do we go from here?

Shuster: As we rediscover urban core areas of our cities, citizens are asking questions about what soils might be productive for horticulture; sewer departments are interested in green infrastructure and how to make it as effective as possible. Where we go from here is that we are currently working to close the knowledge gap about urban soils, which for the vast majority of cities, have never been surveyed or otherwise characterized (much less for their hydrologic characteristics).

Soil Horizons: How do you use your research for public outreach?

Shuster: In our inner-city soil hydrologic work, I have had the opportunity to interface directly with citizens. These are largely opportunistic interactions, when someone is walking along and sees us taking a soil core. That is just something that people don’t see every day. So, we describe what we are doing, and how this soil core takes us through the natural history of the area, and how humans have affected soil development in the recent past. In general, people don’t expect to see us in these areas, so they are naturally curious of why we think that these soils are important. And, we are happy to tell them about how soils are a natural resource, and we have to know something about these soils. We also end up working with park, sewer department, and community development staff in each city. We are establishing a dialogue about how soils fit into longer-term plans for how our cities cycle water.

Soil Horizons: When you were in Omaha, did you ever see Warren Buffett? Any celebrities near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland?

Shuster: We have not had any celebrity sightings on our expeditions, but at the bed and breakfast I stayed at in Omaha, they had Warren Buffet’s high school graduation picture. Everyone in Cleveland is a rock star.

Shuster lives in Cincinnati, with his wife, Jackie; children, Joey and Ellie; and three cats. He has been an SSSA member since 1996 and serves on both the SSSA Membership & Society Identity Committee and the Urban Soils Committee.

This story originally appeared in the Nov-Dec issue of Soil Horizons.

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