Researchers Investigate Impact of Aging Infrastructure, Human Activities on Coastal Waters

Beach squareMost people know water runs downhill from mountain to sea. But they may not be aware of what gets picked up along the way, things like human waste, animal feces and storm water full of nutrients and pesticides from farm fields.

In the past this was thought to be a good thing. The water washed away the bad stuff and that was that. But there is no “away” in our expanding human landscape. And New England’s tidal waters bear the symptoms of this reality as pollution derived from storm, septic and malfunctioning sanitary sewer systems flow downhill from coastal communities to the sea, contaminating water bodies. And when this happens beach waters may become unsafe for people.

A three-year, multi-institutional collaboration seeks to understand the mechanisms that foster this bacterial flow pattern while also examining risks to public health and the potential for real-life solutions. The New England Sustainability Consortium (NEST) has mobilized the collective capacity of New England universities and colleges to strengthen connections between science and decision-making. Beginning with coastal areas in Maine and New Hampshire, NEST is capitalizing on research and stakeholder synergies to advance the theory and practice of sustainability science. This scientific model seeks solutions to pressing societal problems with a focus on both human wellbeing and protection of the planet’s life support systems. A key component is collaboration with diverse stakeholders; in this case state and local government, beach managers, shellfish harvesters and citizen scientists.

UMaine’s Sean Smith, a project co-investigator and Assistant Professor in the School of Earth & Climate Sciences and the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, and graduate students from his lab are examining the complex mechanisms of water and pollutant delivery along Maine’s coast. An overarching question: How are humans changing Maine’s drainage systems? From inundated agricultural fields to sewage system overflows to storm water from rooftops, roadways and parking lots, the elevated runoff conditions in our modern terrain stretch from quiet rural areas to urban centers. The increased rates and magnitudes of freshwater flows into coastal estuaries are a byproduct of human modifications to Maine’s coastal areas over the past three centuries. The research focuses on the delivery of pollutants carried by surface runoff, which is enhanced by the modified drainage patterns. Scientists want to both quantify the drainage changes and improve understanding of the how the changes relate to coastal bacterial pollution problems in the variety of settings that exist along Maine’s coast. The implications are serious. Some types of fecal-borne bacteria introduced into coastal waters cause gastro-intestinal illnesses in people and scientists want to better assess both risk and morbidity.

“We are trying to relate the physical attributes that humans create to drain off our coastal areas to what’s happening in the sea,” said Sean Smith”. “It is not easy to accurately map the complex water flow pathways from hill slopes to tidal embayments in the Gulf of Maine. It is another level of detail to accurately describe how humans have changed those drainage ways and what the alterations mean to public uses of coastal resources such as beaches and seafood.”

Data gathered by researchers has immediate real world implications. Collaborators on the project include the Maine Healthy Beaches program, which posts beach advisories to notify the public when a disease-causing microorganism is present and may pose a health risk, and local government officials who face decisions about whether to close beaches. There’s a lot at stake. With $120- $480 million in shore-related tourism pouring into Maine and New Hampshire, advisories can have enormous economic implications. Data from the project could lead to better decision-making and better tools for predicting and managing risk conditions. Right now, measuring bacteria levels is a time-consuming science. Cultures drawn by trained local staff and volunteers are sent to regional laboratories where they must incubate for 24 hours before showing results.

“We are trying to make an informed decision on yesterday’s news. On a given day, we don’t know whether there’s a direct impact on human health,” said Keri Kaczor, Coordinator of Maine Healthy Beaches and Marine Professional at UMaine Cooperative Extension.

The how and why of tidal water contamination has stymied serious research efforts for years, NEST researchers say. Not all landscapes are created equally and pinpointing the source or sources of contamination can be extremely challenging. No single measurement tool can identify the risks of contamination along the coast, they say.

“We can come up with very specific relationships related to contamination in a certain area, but we can’t transfer that to another location,” said John Peckenham, a co-investigator, Director of the Water Resources Research Institute and Associate Director and Senior Research Scientist at the Mitchell Center.

Peckenham said scientists believe a lot of contamination is associated with rain events, but remain unsure about the sources and sequences of events.

“A core question: what is this relationship between rainfall and changes in coastal water quality? Is it the rain itself that washes pathogens directly off the landscape or is it freshwater bringing bacteria and nutrients to the coasts?”

Scientists at University of New Hampshire may be able to help pinpoint contamination sources through DNA testing of fecal bacteria.

“In the case of fecal bacteria, you can tell what source they come from with genetic analysis. For example, genetic markers can be used to identify whether fecal-borne bacteria are associated with humans, or cows, dogs, sea gulls or other non-human sources,” said Stephen H. Jones, Research Associate Professor, Natural Resources and Marine Science, who helms UNH’s team.

Smith, Peckenham and colleagues are realistic about the project’s potential. New England’s land-to-sea contamination presents an enormous environmental and economic challenge and this research, they say, is just a beginning.

What do they hope to present at project’s end? Scientists hope to contribute better maps of coastal drainage attributes in varied settings. Assessments of aging storm water and sewage infrastructure, bacterial sourcing and potential advancements in beach closing decision-making will provide an actual reference point for more detailed assessments and technological advancements. Overall, researchers want to demonstrate that modern coastal areas are note all created the same. Fresh-water flows into tidal estuaries vary greatly.

“This will produce a large body of information that can be available to guide strategies to mitigate pollution problems and local and state-wide scales,” Smith said. “It will help government plan for the future.”

NEST is managed by Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) at the University of Maine through UMaine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions (Mitchell Center) in partnership with University of New Hampshire (UNH), College of the Atlantic (COA), University of New England (UNE), University of Southern Maine (USM), Great Bay Community College (GBCC), Plymouth State University (PSU), and Keene State College (KSC). In addition to the land-to-sea focus, areas of concentration include shellfish bed closures due to bacterial contaminants and an analysis of communications systems in multi-institutional science collaborations. Stories on these additional areas will follow this first installment on land-to-sea contamination mechanisms. This collaboration, funded by a three-year, $6 million award from the National Science Foundation, aims to strengthen the scientific basis for decision making for the management of recreational beaches and shellfish harvesting.

Other resources:

NEST: Safe Beaches & Shellfish Beds

Faculty Expert: Sean Smith

Maine Healthy Beaches