Durham - A Balanced Approach to Addressing Water Quality Challenges within the Great Bay Estuary

Durham and UNH Team to Achieve Pollution Reduction Innovations

A Balanced Approach to Addressing Water Quality Challenges within the Great Bay Estuary

Durham, NH - The Town of Durham and the University of New Hampshire have joined forces on an innovative approach to reduce pollution in the Oyster River and the larger Great Bay Estuary. 

Officials from Durham and UNH met on campus with a group of officials from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Services on Wednesday, October 17, 2012, to discuss the formulation and implementation of an Integrated Watershed Management Plan.  Also attending the meeting were representatives of the Great Bay National Research Reserve, the Conservation Law Foundation, the project watershed consulting team of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. of Bedford, NH and Woodard & Curran of Portland ME, plusDurham’s wastewater consulting engineering firm Wright-Pierce of Portsmouth.  The Plan is being proposed as an innovative means of complying with federal discharge permit requirements, and more importantly to address growing concerns with the downward trend of water quality in the Great Bay Estuary. 

Durham and UNH are partnering in the effort and Wednesday’s meeting was the third meeting with EPA and NHDES over the last year to explore this approach to improve water quality within the Great Bay Estuary.  The Integrated Watershed Management Plan would focus on the Oyster River watershed, which is where Durham and UNH currently maintain three separate federal discharge permits: one permit to discharge treated effluent from the Town’s wastewater treatment plant into the tidal portion of the Oyster River, a stormwater discharge permit from the Town’s urban area, and a second separate stormwater discharge permit from the UNH campus. 

The integrated watershed permitting approach is a significant divergence from EPA’s usual practice of issuing separate discharge permits. 

Durham and UNH have observed that separate discharge permits in some cases result in inefficient compliance strategies that tend to fall short of addressing broad watershed scale challenges.  The EPA has been promoting the integrated watershed permitting approach nationwide and recently published guidance documents encouraging municipalities to consider this integrated permit concept to more efficiently address the sometimes competing and overlapping stormwater and wastewater permitting requirements.  Administratively it will help make permitting compliance more streamlined. 

Durham and UNH originally introduced the idea of the integrated watershed approach to the EPA at their initial permit renewal meeting in October 2011, and shortly thereafter the EPA published their first notable memorandum outlining the benefits.  The Durham/UNH community would be the first in the northeast to implement this innovative permit compliance approach with EPA and the discussions at Wednesday’s meeting focused on how the project team could make it a reality.

As project partners, Durham and UNH would collaborate  with EPA, NHDES, the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership, and many local stakeholders to seek cost-effective sustainable solutions while balancing capital investments in wastewater treatment upgrades with a variety of measures to reduce non-point source pollution such as stormwater runoff and excess fertilizer. 

Durham’s Town Engineer David Cedarholm describes this initiative as “a very exciting opportunity to integrate multiple federal permits into a morecomprehensive watershed based one-permit approach, while integrating the people and ideas of a whole watershed to tackle the larger scale water quality problems in a more sustainable and cost effective way.”   

The EPA and NHDES are highly supportive of the approach, and have indicated a willingness to work with Durham/UNH as the community develops the details of its plan. 

Tom Irwin of the Conservation Law Foundation stated he was “very pleased to see Durham taking a leadership role in developing solutions to the region’s nitrogen problem.”  The EPA, Durham, and UNH are hoping that this collaborative effort might become a regional and possibly a national model for other communities to achieve similar pollution reductions around impaired water bodies such as the Great Bay Estuary.   

Key elements of this effort will include the use of green infrastructure that relies on natural processes and vegetation to treat stormwater such as rain gardens, gravel wetlands and vegetated buffers along stream corridors.  Increasing public awareness on proper lawn care techniques to reduce fertilizer usage will also be a focus.  Finding these and other ways to limit the amount of nitrogen being added throughout the watershed will result in more sustainable solutions.  

The Integrated Watershed Management Plan will build on current research and modeling being done at UNH and by NHDES, and will be coordinated with other Oyster River watershed stakeholders to develop a common understanding of all pollution sources in the watershed, includingnitrogen.  It will identify practical and effective solutions with the greatest environmental, social, and economic benefit. 

Ted Diers, NHDES Watershed Bureau Administrator, noted that he is very supportive of Durham and UNH and “will help them work out the details of their Plan any way we can.”  The project partners are hopeful that the Durham/UNH approach may serve as an innovative water quality model for the entire watershed. 

A public information meeting is planned for later this year to inform and engage other interested stakeholders within the Oyster River and Great Bay watershed including residents and members of various non-profit organizations, watershed protection advocates and other local community officials to discuss mutually beneficial activities and ideas going forward.    

For additional information, contact Town Engineer David Cedarholm at (603) 868-5578 or dcedarholm@ci.durham.nh.us