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Great Lakes Article:

Trickles of pollution: A path to a clean lake?
By Misty Edgecomb
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Published August 29, 2006

GREECE Northrup Creek flows wide and lazy along suburban back yards, carrying ducks and fish and the occasional canoe.

It's also a conduit for the pollution that sullies Lake Ontario.

Every time it rains, water flows across the surface of the land, picking up pesticides, loose soil, motor oil drippings and fertilizers in its path. The little rivulets collect in ditches and small streams, then in creeks like Northrup, eventually making their way into the lake.

Across the region, tens of thousands of rivers and streams of all sizes feed the Great Lakes, bearing the detritus of human civilization into one of the world's key water resources.

So all summer, Mark Noll has spent his mornings loading up his truck with buckets and dippers and all manner of water chemistry testing kits to track the health of these small streams.

People see the brown plume of sediment where the Genesee River empties into the lake at Charlotte and understand that the lake is polluted as a result. But they don't realize that it all begins with the trickle from their garden hose, said the State University College at Brockport geochemist.

"People think, 'One little thing in my back yard how could that possibly make a difference?'" Noll said during a recent research trip in Greece. "But when it's a lot of people's back yards, it all adds up, and that's what we have to be careful of."

A study conducted by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in the mid-1990s said that urban stormwater runoff was the third most frequent contributor to phosphorus pollution, after only sewer overflows and agriculture, according to Stephen Lewandowski of the Lake Ontario Coastal Initiative, a coalition that works to address water pollution.

"It's quite significant," he said.

Noll and several students have taken more than 100 water samples from dozens of sites along Northrup and nearby Larkin creeks in hopes of identifying areas where the pollution levels particularly phosphorus, a nutrient that feeds algae spike.

A spike means a source, and if Noll can identify the source, he might be able to offer homeowners and municipal officials a way to stop it.

This methodical approach is a bit like checking every Christmas light bulb on a string. Once a pollution spike is found, Noll and his students pore over topographical maps to find small streams and drainage culverts where the pollution might be originating, then walk amid the underbrush to scoop up water samples.

They've tested sites in dry weather and just after the rainstorms that tend to result in an influx of pollution, and they are starting to create a picture of the watershed.

Some pollution trickles across city lawns and some travels miles through ditches, from farm fields and pastures. Some comes from culverts that are connected to old storm sewer systems and, occasionally, from a household sewer that has been incorrectly installed. It comes from several counties, but ultimately it all ends up in the streams that flow into Lake Ontario.

"People say, 'Why are you looking at streams?' Well, that's where the stormwater goes," Noll said.

Research assistant and SUNY Brockport senior Becky Pawl finds herself peering over stream banks and under bridges as she drives around town, eyeing the health of every little stream she encounters. After months of sampling every trickle in Greece, she can't help it, she said. She has become hypersensitive to stormwater.

Tracing runoff, which is responsible for a substantial portion of Lake Ontario's pollution, is nothing like stopping the industrial pollution coming out the end of a pipe.

"It's not like we can point a finger and say, 'You're dumping something into the stream,'" Noll said.

Rather, he hopes to spend the next few years compiling a list of likely sources from the creeks' diverse watersheds driveways, lawns, farm fields and to link different uses to different types of impacts. Once the problems have been identified, educational efforts can be designed to solve them.

The Stormwater Coalition of Monroe County has received more than $1.3 million in state grant funds to address pollution issues since it was formed in 2000 to help local communities deal with new federal regulations governing stormwater control. But spread among the 27 member communities and other entities (such as SUNY Brockport), that funding is limited and must be used wisely.

Noll's research, which if successful could be expanded to other water bodies, is one of the first research projects to receive funding.

"Instead of guessing where the sources are, we want to know exactly where the pollution is coming from," said Harry Reiter of the Monroe County Department of Environmental Services.

Several years from now, county and municipal leaders hope to be using Noll's data to design local regulations and educational programs and to guide decisions about grant funding all in hopes of getting the stormwater message to the right people.

"If you present the facts to people, they're generally willing to cooperate," Noll said. "Most people don't intentionally want to mess up the environment. It's that they don't know they are."



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