Michelle Daley and Anna Kobylinski
On a breezy summer afternoon, Sable and Logan have their noses to the ground, sniffing. The two dogs are hard at work in the town of Durham, on the hunt for stinky sewage from leaky pipes, bad plumbing joints, seeping septic systems--anywhere untreated wastewater is escaping. When he picks up a telltale scent, Sable, a German shepherd mix, announces his discovery with a bark; Logan, a collie, promptly sits. These doggie detectives from Environmental Canine Services in Michigan are saving money for towns tracking contaminated water. Unlike standard laboratory testing, which can exceed $100,000 and take many weeks, this eight-legged team costs only $5,000-$10,000 for a week of work—and can provide immediate results.
Sable and Logan are on the cutting edge—smart canines who are sniffing out new solutions to the daunting problem of nonpoint source pollution. Plus, they're photogenic, which is more than you can say for most pollution solutions. James Houle '95, program manager for UNH's Stormwater Center, admits a few cute dogs could come in handy in his line of work, where it can be tough to get people to pay attention. While the highly charged debate around Seacoast wastewater treatment plants generates headlines, nonpoint source pollution tends to suffer from invisibility. It's hard to get people excited about policies and parking lots, notes Houle. "But we need to be moving on all fronts. Sometimes tackling pollution can feel like playing whac-a-mole," he says. "You go after one problem, but then another crops up. It's a very complex issue."
It wasn't always this way. Historically, gravity and dilution took care of most pollution. Rain fell to earth, and contaminants were taken up by vegetation or "cleaned" as water seeped through the ground and then further diluted in the giant wash of water flowing into the ocean. Today, though, more and more communities are reaching 10 percent impervious surface area—the point at which water quality begins to degrade. In big cities, impervious surface areas can be as high as 90 percent. The earth can't keep up. Which is why Houle gets so excited about a particular plot of pavement at a shopping complex in Greenland, N.H.
A mere five percent of the sprawling parking lot in front of Target and Lowe's, the small section of porous pavement has been so successful at cleaning runoff that the water flowing back into Pickering Brook—and eventually into the bay—is cleaner than the water in the brook itself. "What we did was try to mimic the hydrology of the forest," says Houle. "Underneath the porous pavement we built a giant storage area full of gravel—essentially a reservoir." Water from the rest of the parking lot is directed into this underground area, where naturally occurring, beneficial bacteria go to work. "Basically, we slow down the water," says Houle, "and return it to the brook clean."
There's even hope for older developments, according to Houle. In Dover, the Hannaford shopping center that was built along Berry Brook sprawls over 11 acres. "For years, all the water that fell on the pavement and rooftops in that development went straight into the brook untreated," says Houle. "And from there it flowed to the Cocheco and into the bay." Five years and 13 manmade gravel wetlands later, the impervious surface has been cut nearly in half—from 30 percent to 17 percent. The ultimate goal is 9.5 percent, below that critical 10 percent threshold where water quality starts to degrade. "Our goal would be to have every neighborhood transformed like this," says Houle. "But it won't happen overnight."
Sharon Meeker, who went on after volunteering with SOS to spend her career as a marine specialist in the New Hampshire SeaGrant Program, says motivating people and communities to make changes is a constant challenge. "One of the hardest things is coming together around something that doesn't seem like an emergency," she says. "The key is getting people to understand that we all have a stake in what happens."
A new state-funded initiative called Soak up the Rain Great Bay is helping homeowners become stakeholders simply by taking action in their own yards—building rain gardens to catch runoff from driveways and lawns before it reaches Great Bay. Peter Wellenberger, head of the Great Bay Stewards who are spearheading the effort, says planting a garden may seem like a small thing. "But if you do a thousand of them," he says, "it starts to add up."
Written by Suki Casanave '86G
Photos by Lisa Nugent