BANGOR, Maine — What’s in the water in Bangor? Paige Brown, a 16-year-old Bangor High School student, has a pretty good idea.
For the past year, Brown has been studying pollution in six Bangor streams. Her work earned her Maine’s 2015 Stockholm Junior Water Prize, an award granted to students from each state to recognize valuable work on water-related science projects.
It started last year, when she was a sophomore in an Advanced Placement chemistry course taught by Cary James, the head of Bangor High School’s science, technology and engineering department. James told students to go to a water source near their home and take a water sample to analyze it as part of a lab assignment on orthophosphates.
“I grabbed a sample of water, brought it in and we tested it, and there was a ton of phosphorus in it,” Brown said recently during an interview next to an Arctic Brook sampling location AB05, just down the road from Bangor High School. “I was surprised.”
This piqued her interest. So she decided to look deeper and expand her research project to include each of Bangor’s streams already identified as impaired because of pollution: Shaw, Sucker, Arctic and Capehart brooks, as well as Penjajawoc and Birch streams. She established 28 sampling locations at spots along these bodies of water.
Brown doesn’t have a driver’s license, so her mother, Heather, usually drives her from sampling location to sampling location so she can check her stations and gather vials of water.
Early on, Brown used laboratory space at Bangor High School to process her samples. Once the summer of 2014 hit, she found it was too difficult to coordinate with Bangor High staff to get into the school so she could work.
So she moved her lab to her parents’ basement, using borrowed and donated equipment.
“It takes a while, but it’s definitely better than sending it off to a lab,” she said.
During the past year of running tests on water samples from each of these locations, Brown found numerous contamination issues in the streams.
Many streams were contaminated with phosphorous, which contributes to algal bloom growth. That growth blocks sunlight and prevents other aquatic plants from growing, which has an effect on other life in the stream, including fish.
“It essentially renders a watershed nonsupporting [of life] if it continues unchecked,” Brown said.
Every stream she studied was impaired with E. coli, exceeding EPA standards.
Four of the streams had conductivity issues, a measure of water’s ability to conduct electricity. High conductivity has a negative effect on fish and amphibians.
Many of these problems can be tracked to a major problem faced in many urban communities: stormwater runoff.
When rain hits impervious surfaces, such as roads, parking lots, airport runways or rooftops, that rainwater picks up chemicals, road salts and other pollutants and washes them into waterways, where they can hurt the ecology of those bodies of water.
No easy fix
Bangor city officials have been aware of these impairment issues for years and have been working to rectify them. The Environmental Protection Agency, which sets water quality standards and classifies streams based on the level of contaminants, has required that the city work to remediate stormwater issues.
In response, the city established a stormwater utility fee in 2012. Property owners must pay $22 per year for the first 3,000 square feet of impervious area and an additional $11 for each additional 1,000 feet. The city uses that revenue to cover the costs of infrastructure aimed at reducing runoff entering streams from these impervious surfaces.
Brown starts her senior year in the fall and expects to continue with Phase II of her project — helping to identify ways to resolve some of these pollution issues.
Brad Moore, superintendent of the city’s wastewater treatment plant, said city officials have met with Brown to discuss her project and are “beginning a collaborative effort” by using some of her data and sharing watershed maps and geographic information with her.
“We’re looking forward to working together,” Moore said. Other Bangor High School students also may be involved, under James’ supervision.
The city is trying to determine how to effectively spend its money to remediate stormwater runoff issues and meet the conditions of its stormwater permits on a limited budget. This is a challenge facing most municipalities in the country. Cities in cold climates have an especially difficult time dealing with road salt runoff after difficult winters.
“There’s no quick fix to some of the issues we’re facing in the streams,” Moore said, adding it will take years of work and significant investments in infrastructure. “This next generation is really going to be key to solving this problem.”
Moore said he will be interested in hearing Brown’s remediation recommendations and working with her on potential solutions and “measured investments.”
Stormwater summer camp
Last month, Brown and nearly 100 other students representing 12 high schools and tribal communities from across the state attended the second Stormwater Management Research Team (SMART) Institute at the University of Maine.
The three-day camp brought the high schoolers together with university faculty, college students, city water planners and Maine DEP representatives to discuss stormwater issues and run labs on data collection and analysis.
Mohamad Musavi, associate dean of engineering at UMaine and one of the camp’s organizers, said the students are expected to put what they learned to good use.
Participants are expected to take what they learn back to their communities, continue studying stormwater issues and work with officials to find ways to “address a pervasive environmental problem,” Musavi said.
“This is not like any other camp. This is just the beginning of the process for these students, and they’re going to be engaged in this for the entire year,” Musavi said.
Brown presented the findings from her past year of research during a keynote presentation at the camp.
She traveled to Herndon, Virginia, June 19 to 20 to compete for the national SJWP title. She didn’t win, but she hopes her work ultimately will help the city’s ongoing efforts to stem stream pollution and ease its water runoff issues.
Bangor High School students have dominated the SJWP in Maine, winning the state award in eight of the past 10 years. James taught each of those students.
Brown said she wants to study chemical or environmental engineering either at Yale University or Massachusetts Institute of Technology, though she said she already has been offered a full scholarship to Drexel University.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.