No one can dispute the damage done to the Gulf of Mexico by last April’s deep-water oil spill. No one can question that we’d be better off if it had never happened. But oil spills have no monopoly on water pollution. Storm water runoff causes plenty of problems on its own.
Storm Water Runoff: What it Is
When rain falls or snow melts, it can’t just lie there forever. Eventually, it has to go somewhere. Under ideal conditions, this water will seep slowly into the ground. Sometimes, however, the amount of water generated exceeds what the ground can handle. In such a case, the water makes a beeline for the nearest exit: your friendly local storm drain.
Why Storm Water Runoff Matters
Flowing over the lawns and down the roads on its way to the drain, the storm water runoff picks up debris, dirt, chemicals and other pollutants. Down the drain it goes, and from there, the now-contaminated water travels directly to our lakes, streams, rivers, wetlands and coastal waters, those bodies of water from which we get our drinking water, and in which we swim and fish. Many do not realize it, but nowhere along the path from storm drain to waterway does anything happen to treat or clean the runoff in any fashion.
What Pollution Does to Our Waters
Sediment clouds the water. It stunts the growth of aquatic plants, often killing then outright. Bacteria and other pathogenic organisms can force beach closures and contaminate our drinking water.
When excess nutrients, like fertilizers, reach our waters, algae blooms proliferate. These blooms eventually die, and the process by which they decompose removes from the water the oxygen required for the survival of fish and other aquatic organisms.
Storm water runoff can also wash household debris into our waters. Plastic bags and bottles, cigarette butts and six-pack rings can suffocate or choke seabirds, ducks, fish and turtles, while insecticides, paint, solvents, used motor oil and the like can poison aquatic life outright. Humans who eat seafood that has been tainted or diseased in this way can also fall ill, and may even die.
What Ordinary People Can Do to Improve the Storm Runoff Situation
1. Go easy with fertilizers, weed killers and pesticides, or stop using them entirely. Compost, if you can.
2. Don’t wash your car in the driveway. Take it to a car wash, instead.
3. Be careful when disposing of paint, automotive fluids, and the like. Check with your town to find a safe place for their disposal.
4. Keep your septic system in tip-top-shape.
5. Pick up after your pet, then flush the waste if possible.
6. Collect rain water in a barrel, or create a rain garden.
7. Rain water cannot seep through concrete or black top. Consider using permeable pavement around your house.
We can’t entirely prevent storm runoff, but the more we try to keep pollutants and debris out of the equation, the less pollution for our waterways. Let’s all do what we can.
Stormwater Program, United States Environmental Protection Agency
Saratoga County Cornell Cooperative Extension
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