Smartphone tool helps environmentalists pursue cleaner Housatonic River

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PHOTOS | Environmental teams test stormwater pipes runoff 

PITTSFIELD — Nothing was supposed to be flowing from those stormwater pipes. Not during a drought.


But survey crews checking nearly 18 miles of the Housatonic River in Pittsfield over the last year found what they suspected: occasional discharges from "outfall" pipes containing fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria, both of which pose threats to human health.

That bad stuff is not supposed to reach rivers this way.

Its presence in stormwater pipes suggests infrastructure leaks may be degrading water quality in the river and posing health risks.

"I was stunned at how many tested positive," said Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, which secured a $35,682 grant from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust to conduct the survey of outfall pipes.

"We want to know what's coming into our river. The next step is going to be figuring out why — and what can be done about it," she said.

"This is definitely something that affects human health," said Dennis Regan, Berkshire director for the Housatonic Valley Association, one of the survey's partners.

Within the month, Winn's group expects to report its findings in an interactive online map, displaying information gathered by dozens of volunteers in a two-year project now wrapping up.

The effort seeks to inform public works officials in Pittsfield about specific points of pollution. The city was a partner in the project and will use data gathered for a mandatory filing to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The project is among several that environmental groups are undertaking to monitor the quality of the Housatonic and Hoosic rivers. This spring, another project will pinpoint issues along the southwest branch of the Housatonic, while building citizen support for its well-being.

And separately, the Hoosic River Watershed Association and the Housatonic Valley Association will use a state Department of Environmental grant this year to conduct bacterial sampling on streams north of the Cheshire Reservoir.

Lauren Gaherty, a senior planner with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said that project will test the hypothesis that water quality has improved since tests were conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s, due in part to public works improvements and changes in farming.

"We're hoping they're showing more natural bacterial levels," Gaherty said of the water bodies. "We have to try to look at success stories."

But if bacteria counts remain high, the project will try to figure out why.

PHOTOS AND TESTS

In Pittsfield, volunteers who donned hip-waders and muck boots for the BEAT survey captured photographs of 276 stormwater outfall pipes — more than the city knew existed.

They then used a specially developed smartphone tool to update a database right from the field.

Elia Del Molino, BEAT's program manager, said the project limited surveying to times when the city saw under one-tenth of an inch of rain in 72 hours. The New England drought left teams plenty of opportunities to travel the three branches of the Housatonic that converge into the river's main stem at Fred Garner Park and then to examine outfall pipes into the river as far south as the border with Lenox.

Water quality tests performed by the Housatonic River Association turned up instances of harmful bacteria.

"We found a number of outfalls that were conveying that," said Del Molino. Full results are still being analyzed.

The problem is different from the one known as "combined sewer overflows," which occur during storms, after sewer systems are overwhelmed by rain and spill their contents into stormwater pipes. The bacteria that BEAT volunteers found in pipes exists on a smaller scale.

But Winn, BEAT's executive director, insists the problem is real and significant for the river.

"This is the chronic background getting in there," she said of river pollution sources. "This constant trickle could be sickening. Even in dry weather, look at what's coming downstream."

The survey itself does not confirm discharges are related to sewer lines. "There's a very strong indication or suggestion that that's the case," said Del Molino.

Gaherty, of the planning commission, said that as the climate warms, E.coli counts could increase in cases like this.

"Sure, tackle the source, absolutely," she said. "We have been concerned about outfalls. BEAT's been able to pick away at that."

BRANCH NETWORK

Though often hidden from view, Housatonic branches knit their way through Pittsfield, from the west branch's start below Pontoosuc Lake to the southwest branch that flows east from Richmond Pond.

After those branches join near Clapp Park, the combined stream connects with the east branch, which originates in Dalton and Hinsdale, to form the main stem of the river as it turns south from Fred Garner River Park off Pomeroy Avenue.

"It's an intimidating project, but it's vital," Regan said of the effort to document the presence of harmful bacteria. "BEAT has shown that it is above approved health standards. It's an ongoing, 24/7 problem for our river."

Survey participants took water samples from outfall pipes that were running in dry weather last October and had them tested by Premier Laboratory in Lee, following testing protocols set by the state. In all, 45 tests were performed at nine outfall pipes.

Regan, of the Housatonic Valley Association office in Stockbridge, said the test results are irrefutable. "People do not have to question the validity of the results."

One of the highest counts for E. coli bacteria came in tests on the west branch from an outfall pipe behind old brick factory buildings off Keeler Street near the Zucchini's restaurant. "It was regularly coming back with high levels," Del Molino said of that outfall pipe location.

Tests of samples pulled from a pipe near Mill Street were also positive, but at varying levels, he said.

Del Molino said BEAT is now working to display the newly gathered data on an online map, and produce a final report. On the map, users will be able to click on specific outfall pipes are view photos of them.

CITY'S RESPONSE

The group plans to meet with Pittsfield officials to discuss ways to further diagnose and remedy infrastructure problems linked to the release of bacteria into the Housatonic.

David F. Turocy, Pittsfield's commissioner of public services, said he appreciates support the city gets on this issue from BEAT and the Housatonic Valley Association. Pittsfield, like all state communities, faces a summer deadline to file with the EPA on how it manages stormwater and pollutants.

"We couldn't get this work done by ourselves ... and the needs will be increasing in the future," Turocy said.

If the BEAT survey pinpoints a minor but pressing problem, Turocy said he may be able to adjust use of his stormwater budget to make a quick fix.

But he anticipates that BEAT's survey will not result in obvious sources of pollution that can be addressed.

"Rather, it will trigger the need to do further research, as we would likely need to investigate the entire drainage watershed area that flows through that outfall," he said.

That can prove expensive, Turocy said. "After that, we need to come up with a plan to reduce or eliminate it."

Both BEAT and the association praised the city's responsiveness.

"They've been very, very good about following up," Del Molino said of the city.

Survey volunteers included students from Berkshire Community College, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the Housatonic River Association.

Once in the field, volunteers used a password to log in to a digital survey form developed especially for the project. That system allowed participants to geo-tag images. "The data is collected in the field and transmitted that way," Del Molino said.

The Massachusetts Environmental Trust raises money for projects like this through the sale of state license plates. For more information, visit mass.gov/eea/met.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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