As far as I know, nobody has come up with a good name for the type of pollution that gets picked up by rainwater that flows across the ground, carrying contaminants into ditches, streams and eventually large waterways, such as Puget Sound.
“Stormwater pollution” is a term I have frequently used. But Sheida Sahandy, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership, made a good point when I interviewed her last summer about the perils of stormwater.
“I don’t really like calling it ‘stormwater,’” Sheida told me. “It doesn’t have much to do with storms. It has to do with people. We’re talking about our dirt, our detritus, our filth. Everyone has it, and we all dump it into the sound to one degree or another.”
Stormwater is relatively pure when it falls from the sky as rain. It only gets dirty because the runoff picks up dirt, toxic chemicals, bacteria and other wastes, mostly left behind by people.
“Stormwater has gotten a bad wrap,” Sheida said. “It’s really what we’ve done to the poor thing that makes it evil.”
To read more about this discussion, check out my series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” and the story “Stormwater solutions key in fight for Puget Sound.”
Officially, the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology tend to call it “nonpoint source pollution.” It’s a term that tells us what this kind of pollution is not. Specifically, it is not pollution coming from a point source, such as a pipe. But “nonpoint” does not describe what it really is.
Technically, nonpoint pollution is more than stormwater. It includes waterborne sources such as marinas and atmospheric deposition from air pollution. Taken together, this form of pollution remains the most serious threat facing those who would clean up and protect Puget Sound.
We need a new term like “mess-left-behind pollution,” because it generally results from someone leaving some kind of contamination on the ground — such as animal waste or leaking motor oil — or failing to anticipate future problems — such as those caused by toxic flame retardants in furniture or mercury from a multitude of coal-fired power plants.
A new plan by Ecology to deal with this type of pollution is now under review. It is called “Washington’s Water Quality Management Plan to Control Nonpoint Sources of Pollution” (PDF 10.6 mb).
The general categories described in the plan are:
- Agriculture, including livestock wastes; fertilizers and pesticides; and erosion from grazing practices and over-cultivation of fields.
- Atmospheric deposition, including emissions from automobile, industrial and agricultural sources and backyard burning of trash.
- Forest practices, including turbidity from erosion caused by loss of vegetation and road-building, as well as pesticides and fertilizers from forest applications.
- Habitat alteration/hydromodification, including increased temperature from loss of vegetation or water impoundment; turbidity from erosion caused by shoreline alteration; and increased bacteria and chemical concentrations from loss of streamside vegetation.
- Recreation, including sewage, paint and solvents from boats.
- Urban/suburban areas, including bacteria from failing septic systems, pet wastes and urban wildlife; erosion from construction and landscaping; lawn chemicals; road runoff; chemical spills; and increased stream temperature from loss of vegetation.
The plan lists a variety of objectives and strategies for reducing the impacts of nonpoint pollution. Among them are these ideas:
- Complete 265 watershed cleanup plans by 2020, focusing on at least eight priority watersheds each year.
- Respond to all complaints about water quality by confirming or resolving problems.
- Provide grants and loans for projects designed to bring a waterway into compliance with state and federal water-quality standards.
- Support local pollution identification and correction programs to track down pollution sources and eliminate the problems. (Kitsap County was identified as a model program.)
- Support water-quality trading programs that allow water cleanup efforts in lieu of meeting increased requirements for industrial and sewage discharges.
- Increase education efforts to help people understand how to reduce nonpoint pollution.
- Coordinate with organized groups and government agencies, including tribes.
- Continue existing monitoring programs and increase monitoring to measure the effectiveness of water-quality-improvement projects.
- Develop a statewide tracking program for cleanup efforts with an annual goal of reducing nitrogen by 40,000 pounds, phosphorus by 14,000 pounds and sediment by 8,000 pounds.
Public comments will be taken on the plan until June 5. Three remaining public meetings are scheduled before then. For information, check out Ecology’s webpage, “Washington State’s Plan to Control Nonpoint Pollution.”