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Hillsborough residents and UNC students team up to fight water pollution

Residents clean up litter in Hillsborough in partnership with a UNC capstone course. Over 30 volunteers collected almost 9,000 pounds of garbage. Photo courtesy of Heather Fisher.

The Town of Hillsborough recently organized a massive litter and freshwater cleanup effort in conjunction with a larger partnership between the town and a group of UNC students to study water sources in the area.

The March 16 event — led by the Hillsborough Stormwater and Environmental Services Division — removed approximately 8,556 pounds of litter from from Bellevue Branch Creek. Thirty-one volunteers assisted with the removal, including a local Boy Scout troop.

The event was one of what are usually annual large-scale litter cleanup projects that the Stormwater and Environmental Services Division organizes. These events serve to get the community involved and educated on potential pollution in the area’s watershed, said Terry Hackett, the Hillsborough stormwater and environmental services manager.

Hackett said one of the biggest concerns is stormwater pollution.

"One of our number one water quality problems in this country is stormwater runoff pollution, or what we call non point-source pollution,” Hackett said.

Hackett said stormwater pollution is more difficult to tackle because it can come from a wide variety of sources.

The cleanup was also part of another project, a partnership between the Town of Hillsborough and a class of capstone students in UNC’s Environment, Ecology and Energy Program, or E3P. The students teamed up with the Stormwater and Environmental Services Division to conduct a watershed study on the Bellevue Branch Creek watershed.

“We thought when this problem came to light of all this trash and debris, this was a perfect way to kick off a larger study,” Hackett said.

Hackett said students collected samples about two weeks ago to analyze and create a report on water quality in the watershed, so the town can better decide what water improvement projects can be undertaken in the future.

“It’s exciting to me to be able to get a group of enthusiastic students to get involved in a real life project that will provide some information we’ll be able to use,” Hackett said.

Although the capstone class was not directly involved in the litter cleanup event, their research is part of the same effort to study the Bellevue Branch watershed and recommend further improvements to its water quality.

Kaylyn Gootman is a Ph.D. candidate who leads the capstone project with eight undergraduate environmental science majors. All environmental science and studies majors are required to take a capstone class for experiential education credit before they graduate, and she said these programs aim to give students the opportunity to solve a real research question collaboratively as a team.

“We’re really at the beginning stages of them gathering information and data, and being able to say something about water quality, and the health of the watershed,” Gootman said.

Gootman said students have been working all semester studying this particular watershed in order to prepare a report for town officials with recommendations for improvements.

“The students are assessing that watershed, they are collecting data, and they are compiling information about the sources of stressors to that watershed, and possible solutions of how to mitigate and mediate any of those environmental problems,” Gootman said.

Reid Brown, a junior environmental science major in the capstone course, said he appreciated the chance to get out into the field and do research. Brown worked on making a map of land usage in the area surrounding the stream.

“I have really thoroughly enjoyed it,” Brown said. “In a way, it’s kind of like work and play at the same time when you get out there.”

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