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CALS helps make sure water under the bridge runs clear

With some 4,000 lakes and ponds and 70,000 miles of rivers and streams feeding into some of the world's largest bodies of water, New York has plenty of water. But getting and keeping it clean is another story, and one that unfolds all over campus.

Water trickles through the résumés of more than 65 faculty members in 12 different departments and four colleges. Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alone has more than 45 graduate and undergraduate courses on water issues.

"With our faculty and resources, we can be one of the premier water programs in the country," says Rebecca Schneider, Ph.D. '94, Cornell associate professor of natural resources, adding that water is potentially an even bigger issue than oil. "Already, half of the world lives without adequate supplies of clean water."

Unclean water not only sickens some 5 million Americans annually, but it affects the environment, too. Last year, researchers reported traces of pharmaceuticals -- including antibiotics, mood stabilizers and sex hormones -- in the drinking water of at least 41 million Americans.

"Water is a complex world," says Susan Riha, director of the New York State Water Resources Institute at Cornell. "You have water transportation systems, wastewater, fish, wildlife, water treatment, groundwater, construction and development, flooding and agriculture. All of these factors interact with each other."

To sort through them, CALS faculty and staff who work on water issues describe an overarching sense of urgency about the need to help the public, politicians and regulatory agencies change the way they think about water management.

City water, country water

Take New York City's watershed, a focus of CALS water projects since the early 1990s when the city's water contained too much nitrogen, phosphorous and other agricultural nutrients. Such conditions foster algae and bacteria growth but kill fish. High contaminant levels also require more chlorination to make water potable.

For the past 15 years, Cornell hydrologists, bioengineers and epidemiologists -- including professors Tammo Steenhuis and M. Todd Walter, who run Cornell's Soil and Water Lab -- have been monitoring, modeling and constantly updating best management practices in partnership with New York City watershed managers and Catskills farmers. Today, the water running through 6,000 miles of pipes, aqueducts and tunnels from the Catskills to New York City is pure and clean -- and rated among the highest quality in the world.

Recently, CALS scientists identified areas on farms where runoff into streams -- and thus into the watershed -- is most likely to occur. BEE assistant professor Walter's research has shown that areas of the landscape where water naturally collects serve as sinks that effectively concentrate the "bad" nutrients from farms. When rains come, the runoff from these sites goes straight into streams and into drinking water and coastal bays. Walter and Steenhuis' lab has helped developed a model to guide land-use practices in Delaware County, the epicenter of the New York City watershed.

"Figuring out that these small areas, or saturated sites, cause most of the problem, we are able to create a model for all of Delaware County," Walter says. "It is as simple as farmers not placing manure piles near these saturated sites. In many cases, we can even predict when a particular site is most likely to be a problem at what time of year."

People power

Meanwhile, Shorna Broussard Allred, associate professor of natural resources, works on ways to promote behavioral change.

"The things we do as individual landowners, farmers and residents impacts the quality of water hundreds of miles away," says Broussard Allred. "It is much easier to regulate an end-of-pipe discharge than it is to convince residents to do something different with their lawns, or for farmers to change long-standing agricultural practices."

She works with officials in Dutchess County, through Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), to help design strategies that motivate human behavioral change as part of a massive countywide effort to clean up the Wappinger Creek, part of the New York City watershed. Dutchess County has been rapidly developing and has been subject to flooding in recent years. Its roads, parking lots, lawns and homes create the perfect setup for floods as more and more ground is covered with surfaces that increase runoff into streams and rivers during storms.

Meanwhile, in nearby Ulster County, CCE coordinates the development of a stream management plan involving local citizens and leaders to prioritize actions and recommendations for long-term stewardship of the stream corridor. Among other things, CCE is involving local 4-H clubs in stream monitoring.

Designer ditches

For years, localities have managed stormwater by moving the water "away from the landscape as fast as you can," says Robert Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, who was among the first scientists to study the effect of nitrogen pollution in sensitive coastal rivers and bays, including the Chesapeake Bay. "But that sends nitrogen and other toxins zooming to the sea."

Cornell research shows that a better technique is to slow down water runoff so that it has more time to sink into soil and replenish groundwater reserves. Slowing down the flow of water in roadside ditches can also help prevent flooding, keeps sediment from building up in streams and protects water quality, Schneider says. Increasing forested canopy cover, hydro-seeding ditches so they are not bare, and letting water be captured in basins or detention ponds -- Mother Nature's biological filters -- gives the water time to absorb back into the earth, rather than rushing pell-mell toward the sea.

CCE has worked extensively throughout the state, and especially in the Hudson and Delaware Valleys close to New York City, to educate transportation workers, water regulators, policymakers and citizens about the importance of "re-plumbing" our watersheds to better manage rainfall.

Looking at the big picture

Water does not belong to any one state, and researchers typically look at watershed ecosystems involving multiple states. How upstate farmers in New York manage fertilizers and cow manure can affect the soft-shell crab count on Maryland's eastern shore, some 400 miles away. That is why such large bodies of water as the Chesapeake Bay Watershed are monitored by regulatory agencies with multistate representation.

Meanwhile, policy always lags behind scientific discoveries. Biogeochemist Howarth's latest study, for instance, shows that a sizeable portion of nitrogen pollution in coastal systems can be traced to metropolitan denizens, or more precisely to their cars. This may, in part, explain why nitrogen levels in the Chesapeake Bay remain high despite changes in agricultural practices that have reduced the flow of nutrients from farms into streams.

"What we need is a master plan for water management that ties science and research to policy prescriptions and management," says Anthony Hay, associate professor of microbiology, who is currently studying levels of pharmaceuticals in our water supply, among other things. "Our citizens depend on clean water, but we can't assume it will be there unless we start to manage it better."

With shifting weather patterns from climate change and droughts in different parts of the country, New York may one day need to share its abundant water with other states, says WRI's Riha. But it will take a well thought-out ecosystem approach to do it.

Lauren Chambliss is the assistant director of communications with the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station in Ithaca. This article is abridged from the original, published in CALS News, Spring 2009.

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