Trickles of pollution: A path to a
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
It's also a conduit for the pollution that sullies Lake
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
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
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
"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
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."