As an environmental professional working in Stormwater, I’ve noticed that the number one reason why it is so hard to protect surface water is not intentional littering and pollution. It’s not the sneaky guy dressed in black pulling up to a creek in the middle of the night, dumping acid into the creek. It’s not the factory discharging polluted waste into the ocean. It’s not drunk fishermen chucking beer cans into the lake. The biggest problem we have is that most people forget or aren’t aware that they live in a watershed, and EVERYTHING they do has the potential to affect water quality.
Obviously, if you live next to a creek, lake, or the shore, this should be something you are at least casually conscious of on a day to day basis. It’s those of us who live further away from water that tend to forget that we are all connected by water, and we all have a responsibility to protect it.
Watersheds are complicated. They do not recognize social or political boundaries. Water from one city flows freely into the next. There are no stop signs or street lights to regulate its movement. As it flows, it picks up anything in its path and carries it along on its journey. Oils from cars, fertilizers, pet waste, trash- all of these and more can be transported by water to the lakes, rivers, and oceans we play in and eat and drink from.
In my city, we do not have combined sewer systems, thank goodness. Although a combined system will carry stormwater runoff to a treatment facility, which is theoretically good, there is one major drawback to this type of system. During heavy rain events, the input of rainwater can exceed the carrying capacity for the system. This can cause a sewer overflow, and this type of event will not consist solely of rainwater. Everything from the showers, toilets, and sinks of the community will overflow into the streets of the city if this occurs. As you can imagine, this would be a smelly disaster for a community, and it would take a considerable amount of time and effort to clean up and recover from something like this.
Instead, where I live, we have a separate storm sewer system. Our storm inlets flow ultimately to surface waters without any treatment. This reduces the likelihood of sanitary sewer overflows and helps mitigate flooding, but does pose one difficult challenge. It is hard to convince people that it is not OK to dump things into the storm inlets because they lead to our creeks.
Some people see these inlets as trash cans. I’ve seen people dump concrete, paint, oil, gasoline, dirty mop water, black water from a charter bus, grass clippings, dirt, dog poop, and leaves into storm drains, just to mention a few. We have cute little markers on our storm drains that are supposed to educate people that this type of activity is illegal dumping, and to remind them that these drains empty into creeks. But the dumping still occurs, often out of ignorance, or people deciding that they are just one person, and what they do doesn’t matter. What does a couple of quarts of oil do to an enormous lake, right? A lot, actually.
Not all pollution comes from people intentionally dumping items and liquids into storm inlets, however. I am convinced that most people are good, and they generally want to do what is right most of the time. Sometimes, they are careless. They may be out for a picnic at the park, and a big gust of wind knocks an empty water bottle into the creek. Or maybe the plastic grocery bag they keep in the backseat of the car “just in case” flies out the window while they are driving with the windows down. What do you think happens to these items? Do they just disappear? Out of sight, out of mind, and into the water.
Sometimes, the consequences of this are extremely visible. In my city, we had a log jam on one of the major creeks that runs through town. Over time, an unbelievable amount of trash and debris accumulated in front of the jam. Before long, the trash build-up was so severe that it could not be ignored. It was brought to the city’s attention, and we responsibly removed the trash and the log jam that caused the backup.
When I saw the scene in person, it almost made me cry to think that all of us in McKinney had contributed to this problem, and most of us didn’t even realize that we were a part of it. This was OUR trash. Not mine. Not my neighbor’s. OURS.
So, what’s the solution to water quality problems? Try to understand that there is a problem, and every single person living anywhere needs to be a part of the solution. If you see your neighbor doing something they shouldn’t, let them know kindly. Don’t be a jerk about it, just explain the issue and help them figure out what they could do instead. If you see some trash along the sidewalk in your neighborhood, be responsible and pick it up. Sure, it isn’t your yard, but it is your water.