Editorial: Ingenuity is the key to treating stormwater

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Last week, Gov. Chris Sununu sent a letter to EPA chief Scott Pruitt, whose career has been that of an enemy of environmental regulation, asking for help.

Sununu, like some mayors and town managers, is concerned with the price communities will pay to comply with new clean water rules governing the treatment of stormwater. He didn’t say whether he wanted the rules delayed, weakened or suspended, but before sending the letter he should have talked to some experts. Maybe even to Clay Mitchell, the manager of Sununu’s hometown of Newfields.

We didn’t speak to Mitchell, but he’s one of the community leaders designated as a “Stormwater Champion” by the University of New Hampshire’s Stormwater Center, a national leader in designing cheap solutions to the problem of the contamination of water supplies. Sununu might have learned that fears that taxpayers and private property owners will have to flush their money away to comply with the new rules are unfounded.

Stormwater runoff, bearing its load of pet and livestock waste, fertilizer, herbicides, heavy metals and other pollutants, is the major source of water pollution. Federal clean water regulations forced big population centers to act first to reduce that pollution, but now it’s time for smaller cities and towns to do the same. The rules will affect 44 New Hampshire communities – those that do not have a combined sewer system that treats both household wastewater and stormwater.

Addressing the problem rarely requires expanding water treatment plants or building new ones. With a little help to repair the damage caused when humans “pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” Mother Nature can usually do the job for a fraction of the cost. Go to the UNH Stormwater Center’s home page (unh.edu/unhsc) and read “Breaking Through,” the center’s 2016 report, for specifics.

Things like catch basins to collect sediment that would otherwise cloud streams, rivers and bays, and swales filled with plants that filter water, absorb the nitrogen and phosphorus that cause algae blooms and collect heavy metals, help a lot. So do using porous pavers that allow rainwater to sink into the soil instead of run off in streams. Wetlands with gravel bottoms do a great job. So does proper landscaping, careful, scientific use of fertilizers and herbicides, control of sediment-bearing runoff from construction sites and other best practices. Examples cited by the center show that the problem can usually be solved for a small fraction of addressing it with outdated, expensive methods.

By working with the Stormwater Center, the city of Dover addressed its problem by changing the culture, first of its longtime director of public works, Bill Boulanger, and his crew and then of the community. Boulanger and his team even went so far as to invent the “Boulanginator,” a cleanable layer of gravel beneath catch basins used to collect sediment from runoff.

It wasn’t that long ago that many of New Hampshire’s rivers and streams were little more than open sewers. The state, thanks to clean water laws and community education, has come a long way, but more work remains to be done. New Hampshire doesn’t need dumbed-down clean water rules. It doesn’t need to spend more money on the state and local level on legal efforts challenging them. It doesn’t need Pruitt. It needs to use what it’s always had: Yankee ingenuity and frugality – and an understanding of basic science – to clean its water and keep it clean.