When I played on the beach as a little kid my favorite activity was to build little dams in the stream of water flowing out of the storm drain outfalls. I was like a budding structural engineer who specialized in sand.
Of course, I was also playing in filth.
This was water that had washed off of roads, parking lots and lawns and was full of everything that you can imagine: motor oil, dog poop, fertilizers, pesticides. But I never actually saw that stuff coming out of the outfall; the water that rushed past my sandy feet was deceptively foul.
As a coworker, who shall remain nameless, delicately remarked after I shared that detail of my youth: “Eww.”
Yes, it was gross but little did I know that I was also getting a crash course in how most of the country manages stormwater. For example, I knew that if it had rained recently then my dam-building skills would be put to the test because the flow of water from the outfall would be dramatically stronger: Game on, Mr. Storm Drain. Not until some years later did I understand that all of that rain water had simply been redirected from nearby streets and dumped, untreated, onto my beach.
Before we covered vast segments of the landscape with impervious surfaces – highways, parking lots, rooftops, etc. – rain would simply filter into the ground and rejoin the water table. But now, to keep entire neighborhoods from flooding, we have to pipe that water somewhere, anywhere, and quick. The solution became little grates and other assorted openings that you see on every street in the nation. Rain water flows towards those openings and is whisked away to the nearest body of water, like the ocean via my beach.
In the majority of cases this stormwater is untreated, so whatever pollutants wash off of the pavement or lawns ends up in the water. For several hundred cities and towns, however, the water is shipped along to be treated at a sewage treatment plant. Sounds great, except it takes a lot of energy to treat all of that stormwater, and these tend to be very old treatment plants that become overwhelmed during heavy rains. So when it rains hard, the plant has to release an unholy cocktail of stormwater, raw sewage and industrial waste directly into a nearby water body in what’s called a “combined sewer overflow,” or CSO.
There’s not too much any individual can do to change how we manage our stormwater systems, but we can each do a whole lot to keep pollution out of the storm drains and the local river, lake or estuary. So with spring and its associated heavy rains just around the corner, now is a good time to consider a few easy options:
Scoop your dog’s poop, because even Barbie does it.
If you have a car, get it tuned up. Those oil and other fluid leaks have a talent for working their way into the nearest water body.
Do you have a yard? You don’t need much fertilizer, or any, to keep it healthy as long as you stick with native plants.
Think green infrastructure, whether you invest in a rain barrel, create a simple rain garden or install a more complex green roof. Any amount of water you can keep from finding its way into the storm drain helps.
Oh and you probably shouldn’t let your kid play in the storm drain outfall at the beach. I turned out fine, or at least fine-ish, but maybe try to refocus all of that dam-building gusto towards building some nice, clean sand castles.