When you think about water pollution, what do you consider to be the worst antagonist? Industrial waste with enormous pipes hemorrhaging toxic sludge from their wide mouths? Unwitting citizens flushing pills down the porcelain express? Smokestacks atop a factory belching sulfur dioxide that will oxidize into scalding acid rain? There is one sinister villain that often eludes our awareness yet is a major contributor to the degradation of bodies of water everywhere: storm water runoff.
Storm water runoff is exactly what it sounds like. Precipitation falls to the ground in the form of rain or snow and then runs off across the land’s surface and drains into different larger bodies of water or infiltrates the ground into the water table. This is inherently a very beneficial and crucial cog in the ever-turning wheel of the hydrologic cycle. However humans, the bumbling nemesis of natural processes, throw a wrench into this. All manner of waste, from plastic bottles and fast food trash on the side of the road to eroded sediment and oil leaks from a parked car are swept away with the runoff into storm drains. Contrary to conventional beliefs, water that enters a storm drain is not treated and the contaminated water is discharged into rivers, lakes, and oceans that are used for drinking, recreation, and wildlife habitats. When we clear and pave forests, grasslands, and other natural sponges, the runoff cannot be absorbed into the soil the way it naturally would which leads to more water becoming contaminated and higher flood risks. According to the EPA, polluted storm water runoff results in the release of debris, sediment, hazardous chemicals, bacteria and pathogens, and excess nutrients into waterbodies. All of this adds up to huge threats to humans and other organisms and increased water treatment costs.
Now that you’re aware of the issue, there are so many ways we can remedy the problem. I would love to go into greater detail about each of them (and my next post might actually be all about rain gardens), but here are some tips you can start following today:
- Don’t litter. Nature is not a trashcan – there is no excuse for littering. Just hold your trash until you’re near a proper receptacle and then throw it out. And while you’re at it, make sure to recycle too! When trash is contained it is far less likely to be washed into a stream where it can harm organisms and break down into harmful chemicals.
- Smarter lawn care. Use fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals sparingly. Better yet, switch to organic alternatives. Whichever option you choose make sure to pay attention to the forecast and never apply these before a storm (it’s best to give you fertilizers a three-day period to safely soak in before a storm).
- Pick up after your pets. Similarly to the previous tip, pet waste can be washed away and cause bacteria and excess nutrients to be released into aquatic environments. Always clean up after your pet, it’s just plain polite.
- Greenify your carwash. Washing your car in the driveway is one of the most environmentally unfriendly chores around since all of the detergents and polishes will be washed into the storm drain and go untreated. In Canada and the United States there are federal laws that require car washes to drain their water to a sewage plant that will treat it before being discharged. You can even find a carwash that treats or recycles the water it uses. This has become a more standard practice for car washes in recent years. After all, green sells and it also saves the company money. Car washes also use less water in each individual wash than someone doing the job at home; according to the International Carwash Association they use less than half the water that a do-it-yourselfer consumes.
- If you have to wash your car at home, make sure to use biodegradable soaps like one from the Simple Green brand. About.com’s Earthtalk offers a simple homemade recipe that consists of “mixing one cup of liquid dishwashing detergent and 3/4 cup of powdered laundry detergent (each should be chlorine- and phosphate-free and non-petroleum-based) with three gallons of water. This concentrate can then be used sparingly with water over exterior car surfaces.”
- Recycle all chemicals. Never purposefully dump chemicals down the storm drain. Used oil, antifreeze, and other chemicals can be taken to your local recycling center for processing.
- Plant more, plant native. Standard grass lawns aren’t very effective at absorbing and holding precipitation. Incorporate lots of native plant species into your landscaping. Shrubs, flowers, and trees develop more extensive root systems that are far superior at retaining water. As another perk, native species require less maintenance and irrigation. More greenery in your yard also helps prevent erosion, and sediment runoff is another huge contaminator of waterbodies.
If you are a UVA student and are more interested in helping the university tackle storm water runoff problems, you can join the Stormwater Task Force, which works with the school to investigate and research different issues and recommends better practices. You can contact them by emailing Janice Zhuang (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Rebecca Stoner (email@example.com) and check out their blog here.
Green girl out!