Earth is a pretty amazing place and we should all be concerned about the impact we are having on the environment. With so many recommendations and campaigns ranging from reduction of fossil fuel use to recycling to water conservation to habitat preservation and countless others, it can be difficult to identify and prioritize the day to day steps you can take to keep our planet healthy. At times it may seem like anything you do is just a drop in the proverbial bucket and easily outweighed by the acts of corporations and other societies around the world. Don’t be discouraged – act in ways that will positively affect your local environment and feel great about doing your part. One great place to start is understanding how polluted runoff impacts our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans and how you can help.
What is Runoff?
When rain falls, much of the water is absorbed into the soil or by trees and other plants, but naturally, a portion will simply flow on top of the ground towards a larger body of water. This is most commonly attributed to a combination of land which is both above sea level, and sloped. Runoff is a completely natural occurrence and keeps lakes and rivers full of water, as well as constantly changing landscape with the power of erosion. Unfortunately, runoff typically contains more than just clean, fresh water.
On it’s way down to the nearest lake or river, rainwater can pick up many pollutants including;
sediment (solid material consisting of minerals or plant and animal remains)
waste (human or animal)
pesticides or other harmful chemicals
oil and gasoline from vehicles
metals from rooftops
These unwanted passengers can be extremely harmful to the ecosystem within the larger bodies of water. Combined, these harmful additions can trigger chains of negative effects, for example: when extra nitrogen and phosphorus (which can be found in waste and certain pesticides) make their way to a mostly stagnant body of water such as a lake, algae can bloom, covering the water’s surface with a green gelatinous coating. With this new barrier separating the water and the air, less oxygen is available for the plant and aquatic life in the lake. Over time, fish populations can die off and the once beautiful lake can become both unsightly and potentially unsafe.
What can be done?
Remember, runoff is a natural and helpful process which can refresh and recycle our water supply. What we should be concerned with is minimizing or eliminating pollutants from the runoff and there are more preventative measures than one might think to do just that.
Rather than turning on the hose and paying to water your lawn, collect the free and clean water falling on your roof. Simply place a collection container such as a barrel below your downspouts or install a system which can route runoff into holding tanks, feeding your irrigation system.
Drains and Gutters
Especially during heavy rains, drains and gutters can act as superhighways for rainwater, collecting all the rainfall from roofs and streets and funneling them to the ground in powerful streams. Keep the water’s path clear of litter, pet waste and any piles or organic matter such as dirt, bark, or compost you may be keeping for future use.
Make sure to dispose of all potentially harmful chemicals properly. Anti-freeze, gasoline, oils, paints and cleaning products can easily be transferred in runoff if not stored in sealed containers off the ground. Pouring these products down the drain or hosing them into the street is not only harmful to the environment, it can be illegal. Most communities have a program for disposing of household hazardous waste.
When purchasing detergents, look for those which contain the least amount of phosphorous. Products with the Green Seal have been reviewed and deemed compliant with higher standards of sustainable ingredients.
If you have a septic system, be sure to have it inspected and pumped at least every three to five years. Because these systems are typically buried underground, leaks may go unnoticed for years without an inspection. Note that water doesn’t just flow on the surface, but also in underground streams and aquifers.
These few steps can make a huge difference to the bodies of water in your immediate vicinity as well as around the world, water connects us all. To learn more about water runoff pollution, check out these links:
Managing Urban Runoff, United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Runoff, United States Geological Survey (USGS)
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