What’s The Fuss About Storm Water?

Storm water is just rainfall – how could this be an environmental problem?

In natural landscapes, most rainwater typically soaks into the ground, which acts like a sponge by absorbing and filtering impurities in the water.

When that land is developed with buildings, roads and parking lots, rainfall flowing over the rooftops and paved surfaces (storm water runoff) picks up sediment, nutrients, household chemicals, animal waste, bacteria and debris as it flows.

This polluted storm water runoff eventually ends up in our streams and lakes. Additionally, as land development expands, the volume and velocity of storm water runoff increases. The increase in storm water flow then results in stream erosion and lake sedimentation.

Look at your property and around your town. Where does the storm water runoff from your rooftop go? Where does the storm water runoff flowing down your driveway, the street or the grocery store parking lot go?

Where does the storm water flowing over the chemically treated residential lawn or agricultural field go? Whether storm water runoff flows to an open roadside ditch, parking lot drainage grate or underground pipe, it eventually enters our streams and lakes – untreated.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, when storm water infrastructure was historically developed, the primary goal at the time was to limit flooding – to direct the rainwater quickly off roadways and properties during a heavy storm. “Little, if any, thought was given to the environmental impacts of such practices…the levels of toxic or otherwise harmful pollutants in storm water runoff…can cause significant water quality problems in receiving streams.” (Preliminary Data Summary of Urban Storm Water Best Management Practices, U.S. E.P.A., 1999)

When you look at the storm water pollution from a single residential property, or one commercial parking lot, it doesn’t seem like much. However, the cumulative effect of storm water pollution is significant and may have many adverse effects: Excess nutrients from storm water can enhance the growth of algae and aquatic plants. Bacteria can be carried in storm water and affect swimming areas and drinking water. Debris carried by storm water, such a cigarette butt, trash and plastic bags, is not only unsightly but also a hazard to wildlife. Sediment accumulation can destroy fish spawning areas and other aquatic habitats and can encourage excessive growth of aquatic plants.

So what can be done?

At your home and property, adopt landscaping practices such as directing roof drains to rain barrels or rain gardens (not to roadside ditches or streams), eliminating or limiting fertilizer and pesticide use, and composting or mulching yard waste (rather than leaving it in the street or sweeping it into storm drains or streams). Consider allowing a vegetated buffer to grow between your property and adjoining roadway ditches, streams or lakeshore. Also, don’t forget to clean up pet waste, which can be a major source of bacteria and nutrients in storm water.

Vehicle wash water or automobile maintenance fluids can easily enter storm water drains and ditches if not managed properly. To avoid this, either wash the car in your yard where the water can infiltrate into the ground, or use a commercial car wash that treats or recycles its wastewater. Remember, the wash water that goes into a roadside storm drain ends up in a stream or lake – without treatment.

On a regional level, support the development of “green” infrastructure projects in your town to reduce storm water volume and slow storm water flow velocities. These projects may include vegetated roadside swales and/or storm water retention basins or constructed wetlands to slow down and provide filtration for storm water.

Encourage your government officials to adopt local storm water ordinances, which require evaluation of the storm water impacts of future development and require mitigation of the identified impacts.

Support the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy in our efforts to protect and preserve watershed lands, wetlands, stream corridors and lakeshores. The CWC’s land conservation efforts ensure that these lands will never be developed, preserving the natural landscape so that the land will continue to naturally hold and filter rainwater.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed. Funding has been provided in part by the Chautauqua County 2 percent Occupancy Tax Grant Program.