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Drain Brains
By Dolores Jalbert Leonard

Just below UNH's West Edge parking lot lurks the stuff of which golfers' nightmares are made. In a clustered hodgepodge, steep slopes give way to rolling moguls, gravel-lined pits jockey with ponds, and stretches of scruffy vegetation are dotted with manholes. Guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of a Sunday duffer, this conglomeration of "hazards" was actually assembled to assess storm water runoff, one of the biggest threats to water quality nationwide.

Researchers from the UNH Stormwater Center constructed this field site to assess the effectiveness of current storm water treatment systems and to test new approaches like parking lots paved with porous asphalt. Funded by the Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology, with the support of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the facility is the first of its kind in the country.

During a storm, rain washes over the landscape, collecting the byproducts of modern life: fertilizers and pesticides, disease-causing microbes from human and animal sources, as well as petroleum waste, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. Eventually the storm water carries this blend of pollutants, known as nonpoint source pollution, into streams, estuaries and harbors, where it degrades water quality and threatens human health—a situation compounded by increasing land development.

"More development means more impervious surfaces like roads, rooftops and parking lots," explains Tom Ballestero, the professor of civil engineering who co-directs the center with research engineer Robert Roseen. "This creates more runoff, which, in turn, calls for more storm water treatment systems. What's missing is an understanding of how different approaches affect the water quality."

Filling in that particular blank is what the center's field site is designed to do. When rain runs off the West Edge lot, it is channeled in equal quantities into 15 systems, which range from a manhole filter to a large retention pond. Before and after runoff flows through the systems, it is sampled—extensively. With 15 testing devices churning out 24 samples each storm, researchers had to develop a bar code system to catalog them all. From this growing mountain of data, patterns are emerging which indicate that while current methods of managing storm water are adequate, they are not improving water quality as much as hoped. Furthermore, some methods actually make things worse, says Ballestero: "If a retention pond filled with standing water sits next to an attractive environment for animal use, it becomes a reservoir for outbreaks of microbial contaminants like E coli. A system that depletes the water's oxygen, and then channels effluent into a nearby stream, can upset the ecosystem."

Could we do a better job? Ballestero thinks so, and the Environmental Protection Agency now demands it. Phase Two of the Clean Water Act requires communities to find storm water management solutions that protect water quality, yet people charged with making this happen often lack reliable information on which to base their decisions. This combination of regulatory demand and a lack of tools to meet it has made the center's frequent workshops very popular in New Hampshire and, increasingly, throughout the Northeast. "It's a challenge to keep up with the demand because of the pervasiveness of the problem," says Roseen. "Water that is drinkable, swimmable and fishable is at a premium everywhere, and communities need to know how to rehabilitate storm water so that it can be a resource to replenish our aquifers, springs, and streams—and not a source of pollution."

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