Gass column: We can impact stormwater quality
We have now officially entered spring! Shouts of "hooray!" and sighs of relief can be heard from warm weather fans all through the area (I know most of our office at least is team summer).
Whether your cheery or not of this opening act for a warmer season, a damaging reality almost always accompanies it each year: flooding. It's one of the greatest threats to homeowners for our state and looking to be a formidable foe this year.
With a wet fall sparking a deep winter soil freeze and a snowy February, it's likely that water will be stranded on the surface moving to whatever low ground it can find. Welcome the genius of stormwater infrastructure.
If you haven't already been told, pavement and other impermeable surfaces are creators for water troubles when the weather is right. Thankfully, we learned this early on and found that water needs a place to go when it can't drain below. The call sign, in other words for storm drains.
Strategically placed along roadways and in low spots, these devices are the entry point for directing runoff away from our establishments and function as the unsung heroes through our wet seasons.
But where does it all go? Well, a little digging will reveal that we traditionally lead stormwater into nearby waterways or land that can handle a little flooding (retention ponds, ditches, etc.).
Notice the intention here, though; direct the runoff, but not necessarily treat it. Hence a bit of a dilemma we face — moving water from urban landscapes without bothering with its cleanliness means a recipe for pollution problems.
Sure enough, stormwater runoff ends up being the No. 1 pollutant of our water bodies in the state, carrying away physical debris like trash, sand, leaves, grass clippings, pet waste and bare soil alongside road scum like oils, detergents and salt residue — none of which we should want in water features, regardless if we drink from it or not.
Now, for those who are still wondering, "What about Carlton County?," the quick and simple takeaway is that about 60 percent of urban runoff is directed into a local water body, half of which alone is directly into the St. Louis River.
The rest is predominantly expelled into ditches and natural landscapes, which both make up about 20 percent a piece and often reside near a water source. In short, the path isn't far for contaminants to travel as subsurface water into the places we'd rather it not.
Whether you feel fired up or not after all the above, I think it's useful to know that each of us can have an influential role when talking about stormwater. Simple actions like cleaning up trash, collecting leaf debris, picking up pet waste and sweeping up salt and sand alongside curbs can add up to big differences down the road in terms of pollution and keeps those drains unobstructed.
I'll reiterate once more: Runoff enters storm drains entirely untreated, meaning anything we put on, or equally don't remove, from our roads or yards ends up in our water one way or another.
Let's all do our part.
Chris Gass is a MN GreenCorps member serving at the Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District and focusing on stormwater and urban forestry. Reach him at 218-384-3891 ext. 5. Information on the SWCD can be found on Facebook and at carltonswcd.org.