Overloaded Storm Systems Threaten Health

Simple lawn solutions can save money and ensure cleaner, safer water.

November 20, 2008

As more and more blacktop covers our land, increased runoff of contaminated water threatens our rivers and streams.

RODALE NEWSROOM, EMMAUS, PA—The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needs to make radical changes to its stormwater system if we want fishable and swimmable waters in this country, according to a new report from the National Research Council, a branch of The National Academy of Sciences. The report charges that rapid development in urban and suburban areas—and the associated paved roads, parking lots and roofs—are causing huge amounts of water to rush off the surfaces and into storm drainage systems that lead to streams and rivers. As a result, motor oil, gasoline, garbage, and chemicals from roadways and lawns wind up in your water and overwhelm water treatment facilities, which could mean higher water bills.

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THE DETAILS: The EPA asked the National Research Council to look over its current stormwater system. They found that most urban stream areas are degraded, that some treatment plants can’t handle the high loads of sewage and runoff water, and that erosion is melting away topsoil. The report found that the best way to stop and reverse damage to water bodies is to move away from political boundary systems that govern water management and instead allow different municipalities along streams and creeks to work together. That way, they can better monitor how much stormwater is winding up in streams. The main focus, according to the report, should be on keeping rainwater and melted snow in the ground rather than rushing into streams and rivers. That way its chemical contaminants will be naturally filtered.

WHAT IT MEANS: Many cities were designed to deal with heavy rain runoff and sewage in the same system. That may have worked years ago, but with population and property development skyrocketing, those old systems are having trouble handling the double duty. The good news is, you can ease the problem by taking control of your own lawn.

No matter where you live, you can keep streams healthy if you:

• Learn logical lawn length. Don’t use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or insecticides on your lawn. They’re not healthy for you, for your kids and pets, or for the waterways that end up filled with the washed-away chemicals. To keep your lawn lush, keep the grass two to four inches tall and deter a dandelion invasion—cutting it shorter promotes weed growth.

• Use organic fertilizer. The healthiest way to fertilize is to use a certified organic type that contains no phosphorus or phosphates. And only use it in the fall, before the grass goes dormant for the winter. “Fertilizing in spring only helps the weeds grow—not your grass, which is likely to still be dormant,” says Gary Belan, director of the Clean Water Program at the advocacy group American Rivers.

• Make a rain garden. With a shovel, a little muscle and some native plants, you can build a handsome, bowl-shaped, mulch-topped garden that serves a Mother Nature approved purpose: to keep rainwater where it’s meant to be, in your property’s ground. Build it in a low-lying area of your yard, at least ten feet away from your house’s foundation.

• Reinvent your rainspout. Rework your rainspout so it flows into your garden or yard. Or better yet…

• Roll out a rain barrel. For as little as $70, you can hook a 40-gallon rain barrel to your spout system that will collect water that hits your roof. You could collect enough water from a single rain to keep your lawn or garden watered for weeks. That’ll save you money on your water bill as well as keep the rainwater in your yard.

• Take it to town hall. Once you learn how to collect rain in your own plot of land, go to local meetings and urge officials to consider stormwater measures in their projects. If you need to convince local authorities this is an issue, investigate streams in your area and take pictures. “If your creek is deep with steep sides, you have a huge stormwater problem,” Belan says. For more reading on how to bring rain collection and stormwater management to your town or city, check out American River’s Oct. 2008 report: A Road Map for Community Based Stormwater Solutions.