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Gass column: Why you should volunteer to clean storm drains

Chris Gass

It's official: Ice out season is in and open waters are coming our way. Any dedicated water enthusiast is ready to pry their way out the door and itching for their chance to get out to enjoy the season.

But with all the time we spend enjoying our waterways, how many of us think to give back to help preserve our favorite escapes? Cliche as it might sound, with great enjoyment comes great responsibility.

And more than ever, we really need everybody's participation to help maintain our water enthusiast lifestyle. Especially when considering that over 40 percent of our state's waterways are classified as impaired with 58 water bodies labeled as such in Carlton County.

One idea is to volunteer your time to help clean a storm drain. I mentioned this in my last article about our new program, available at our website, carltonswcd.org, under "Adopt A Drain," where select city residents can help stop pollutants such as suspended solids from entering our waterways.

What is this pollutant? Let me explain.

Suspended solids is simply debris that can be carried and suspend in water. They're not always small as large rocks can be carried with forceful enough flows, but generally are considered the size of sand and finer grains. When storm runoff washes this debris off pavement and carries it away, we encounter the first stage of effect: suspension.

When introduced, these particles float with the current and slowly begin their process of settling, if they can settle at all. As this proceeds, the debris blocks out light and makes the water turbid giving it a dirty or cloudy appearance.

With enough clouding, light has a hard time reaching the bottom ultimately restricting solar energy needed by plants and other bottom dwelling organisms (benthic life).

This begins a major problem as the lack of light reduces plant and benthic critter production thereby limiting a major primary food source. Less light also means less photosynthesis, which supplies a portion of the dissolved oxygen needed for "breathing" underwater, hence, less overall oxygen concentrations.

But that problem is compounded by aquatic life having to breath dirty water, which is like us trying to breathe in smog-ridden air. It's choking and leads to development problems, higher mortality and long-term population risks.

Stage 2 begins when this grit settles out and begins changing the composition of the floor. Much like snow, it's benign in small amounts but continued accumulation results in dramatically different ground cover and changes the offerings of the landscape.

Hence forth, as the fallout covers the natural floor, it begins to suffocate out habitat, nesting spots and food sources ultimately removing the overall livability.

Often, the result we see is a loss of sensitive species (think trout or mussels) which cascades to altering the populations of creatures interacting with them, and so beginning the unbalancing act of the aquatic and shoreland community.

Additionally, accumulations do not need to blanket the floor to cause issues as the curbside debris acts like a magnet in picking up urban contaminants and concentrating them in fallout zones.

This results in heavy metals, chemicals, and persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs) contaminating anything nearby and possibly downstream.

A lot I tried to cover in a short article, but head over to our site, carltonswcd.org, to find more information and to see our "Adopt a Drain" program.

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.