Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Take special care to save carwashes from extinction

May 3rd, 2013 by cdunagan

I used to feel happy for teenagers who got together on a weekend to wash cars and raise money for a good cause. I would often take time to drive in, get my car washed and praise the teens for their efforts. And I would give them a nice tip.

Now, when I see a charity carwash, I just want to know where the water is going. If the water is washing into a storm drain that spills into a stream, I can’t help but wonder if these kids care about fish and wildlife, or if they might not have gotten the message about the harm caused by dirty, soapy water.

You may wish to read the story I wrote on this topic in last Saturday’s Kitsap Sun.

Sometimes, being an environmental reporter causes one to think a little too much about the environment. Sure, carwashes probably are not going to kill everything in sight. But they are just another insult from a human society that has not yet learned how to protect the living Earth.

The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 declared that it was illegal to discharge polluted water into any natural stream or waterway. At the time, industrial discharges were so severe that soap and heavy metals from carwashes were insignificant. But now, after 40 years, those industrial point sources are greatly diminished, and researchers are learning that the greatest threat to water quality today comes from thousands of small sources.

Gov. Jay Inslee has declared this month “Puget Sound Starts Here Month,” according to a press release issued by the Puget Sound Partnership. The idea is for each of us to pay attention to how we affect Puget Sound.

Here’s the message from Marc Daily, the partnership’s interim executive director:

“It’s not just about the pipe coming out of the factory anymore. Today, stormwater runoff is the single largest contributor to our water quality problems. That pollution comes from our cars and how we wash them, from the chemicals we put on our lawns, and from not picking up after our pets. When it rains, bacteria and toxic chemicals from these and other sources end up in our local waterways. That’s a problem.”

From King County Water and Land Resources

From King County Water and Land Resources

One way to keep charity car washes alive is to capture the wash water and direct it into a toilet or sink that connects to a municipal sewer system, not a septic system. King County provides instructions for making and using a carwash kit to handle the water.

People can also sell tickets to commercial carwashes, which is the method being pushed by most water-quality programs across the nation. It’s not just here that carwashes are getting increasing attention.

How much harm do they cause? It varies from place to place, but some students from Central Kitsap High School calculated the amount of various chemicals produced by capturing the water from washing cars and conducting lab tests on some of the pollutants. See “Characterization of Runoff from Charity Carwashes in the Dyes Inlet Watershed” (PDF 475 kb).

Like many people, I feel a tinge of sadness that carwashes will probably die out. Like many harmful traditions, such as burning garbage and smoking, it might be time to give this one up.

Still, if you want to operate a weekend car wash, get yourself a carwash kit to deal with the wash water. Then stand on the corner and wave signs promoting the fact that this is a clean and safe carwash that protects the environment. If I see you, I’ll even stop and donate to the cause.

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One Response to “Take special care to save carwashes from extinction”

  1. grace Says:

    I will pay the teenagers instead of washing my car in the driveway. Either way…its a wash.

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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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