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Modeling the Effectiveness of Rain Barrels, Cisterns, and Downspout Disconnections for Reducing Combined Sewer Overflows in a City-Scale Watershed


Green Infrastructure / Low Impact Development (GI/LID) is an increasingly popular strategy to manage urban stormwater for individual properties, but the aggregate effect on runoff reduction at the city scale has not been thoroughly investigated. This study examined the potential combined effects of rain barrels, cisterns, and downspout disconnections on combined sewer overflows (CSOs) for a medium-sized urban center. To support a city-wide analysis, a novel simulation strategy was implemented using the Storm Water Management Model (SWMM). In this new approach, a modeling at the source technique for subcatchment delineation was combined with a set of R-language utilities to automatically configure GI/LID management scenarios. The reconfigured SWMM model was used to examine 99 distinct management scenarios based on different sizes, numbers, and locations of the targeted GI/LID features for the city of Buffalo, New York. For a typical hydrologic year, the deployment of large residential rain barrels (1000-gallon) resulted in up to a 12% reduction in predicted CSO volume, while the inclusion of large commercial-roof cisterns (5000-gallon) contributed up to an additional 12% reduction. Large variations in the predicted CSO reductions were observed across the various management scenarios, and the simulation tools were able to identify locations where the GI/LID features were most effective. In general, the modeling at the source approach and the R-language tools substantially enhanced the utility of SWMM for evaluating the effectiveness of GI/LID deployment as a CSO management strategy at the city scale, and the methodology can readily be adapted to cities with similar CSO issues.

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Data Availability

Some or all data, models, or code generated or used during the study are available in a repository or online. R-language utilities for SWMM post-processing can be found here:


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This material was partially supported by the U.S. Geological Survey under Grant/Cooperative Agreement No. G16AP00073. We also thank the University at Buffalo (UB) RENEW Institute Seed Grant and the UB Buffalo Blue Sky programs for additional financial support, the Buffalo Sewer Authority (BSA) for providing the SWMM model and supporting information, and Computational Hydraulics International (CHI) for providing a university grant to use the PCSWMM model support system. The opinions and findings presented in this paper are only those of the authors and do not represent the opinions of the BSA.

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Correspondence to Zhenduo Zhu.

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Ghodsi, S.H., Zhu, Z., Gheith, H. et al. Modeling the Effectiveness of Rain Barrels, Cisterns, and Downspout Disconnections for Reducing Combined Sewer Overflows in a City-Scale Watershed. Water Resour Manage 35, 2895–2908 (2021).

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  • Combined sewer overflow
  • GI/LID
  • Rain barrel
  • Cistern
  • Downspout disconnection
  • City-scale watershed