Rachel Hood, director of West Michigan Environmental Action Council, stands in the rain garden behind WMEAC’s parking lot at 1007 Lake Drive SE.
After the storm is over
Undeterred stormwater runoff
carries a cocktail of pollutants directly
into rivers and lakes, threatening our
health, causing erosion and making
water too warm for fish.
By Tersaem Tesseris
Photography by Johnny Quirin
Would you want to swim in a pool contaminated with litter, pet waste, pesticides, grass clippings, oil and dirt? Probably not.
And yet, every time it rains, those pollutants are washed into local rivers and lakes, sometimes making those bodies of water unhealthy for people and animals.
“A lot of rain falls on our communities and it really becomes a mix of just about anything and everything that is dirty on the ground,” said Rachel Hood, executive director of West Michigan Environmental Action Council. “And this cocktail of pollutants gets into our water. In Grand Rapids, it takes only 15 to 30 minutes for contaminated stormwater runoff to reach the Grand River.”
The natural purification process of rain filtering through layers of soil is impeded by impervious surfaces such as roads, roofs and parking lots. Thus, stormwater runoff carries pollutants and debris directly into rivers and lakes.
Bill Byl, Kent County Drain Commissioner, likes to paint a real-life example.
“Walk out on the main pier in Grand Haven and look to your right, and notice how brown and murky the water looks,” he said. “That is the Grand River funneling out into Lake Michigan, carrying with it all the stormwater runoff for approximately 2 million people, including the cities of Lansing, Jackson and Grand Rapids.”
Once the water reaches Grand Haven, there is too much of it and it is moving too fast to treat, he said. “It’s too late. We have to manage stormwater further up the watershed.”
Until recently, Grand Rapids had a single sewer system that carried both stormwater and sanitary wastewater to the city’s wastewater treatment plant. But since the sanitary system often overflowed during large storms, the city separated stormwater and sanitary wastewater into two systems.
As a result, Byl said, stormwater runoff now is completely untreated.
“The issue of stormwater has really come to light in the past 10 years. In the past, we were more focused on industrial runoff and sanitary sewer treatment in order to mitigate overflow occurrences,” Byl said.
“Kent County has 550 miles of drains and 300 detention ponds to help manage stormwater runoff. And we are constantly constructing, repairing and cleaning new rural, suburban and urban drainage systems.”
What is found in stormwater runoff includes oil and grease from cars, pesticides and fertilizers from lawns, animal waste, bio-based material such as lawn clippings, salt and heavy metals. All of the 13 metals on the EPA’s priority pollutant list have been detected in runoff samples in communities like Grand Rapids. Copper, zinc and lead were detected in 91 percent of those samples.
From the main pier in Grand Haven, the water funneling out into Lake Michigan looks brown and murky, carrying stormwater runoff for about 2 million people.
Stormwater runoff is a major source of E. coli and other bacteria found in the Grand River, according to Lower Grand River Organization of Watershed’s Management Plan Review Committee. Fecal coliform bacteria counts in stormwater runoff are 20 to 40 times higher than the health standard for swimming.
“If you flew up Lake Michigan’s coast, you would see that every one of the rivers spilling into the lake will have a plume, like the one in Grand Haven. And each plume will have its own distinct color, depending on what particular pollutants are present,” Byl said.
Sediment and heat
Two things that most people don’t consider as contributing to stormwater pollution are heat and sediment, Hood explained.
Volunteer Shannon Brewer and intern Kyle Pray maintain and weed the green roof on top of the WMEAC office building.
“When water falls on hot pavement, the water gets really warm and it goes through a concrete system of storm drains, or the grey infrastructure, and continues to heat. This water goes into our local streams hot, which puts our local cold fisheries at risk.”
Sediment or bio-based materials such as leaves, twigs and grass clippings cause storm drains to clog, which in turn creates local flooding, erosion and sedimentation. When bio-based materials reach area rivers and lakes, they consume oxygen in the water during the decomposition process, leading to hypoxia.
“It isn’t very glamorous, but the day-to-day operation of our office is to clear logjams and brush obstruction. We need to slow down the flow of stormwater by making sure the drains are clear and stable,” said Byle.
A domino effect ensues when stormwater rushes directly into local streams, eroding banks and nearby vegetation. For example, Plaster Creek in Kent County — once a narrow coldwater stream that supported brook trout — has morphed into a wider, shallower creek. Shallow water heats up more easily and can no longer support the fish.
“The Rogue River is currently at 67 degrees,” Hood said. “They are 3 degrees away from losing it as a trout stream.”
Unpaving the community
The goal of the Community Stormwater Planning Initiative is to provide community-based solutions to manage rainwater where it falls.
Ken and Gail Heffner installed a rain barrel after attending a WMEAC neighborhood party to educate residents about the benefits of
capturing roof runoff.
“We want to implement some policy changes, whether it be different funding options or stormwater management districts to help us manage our stormwater runoff,” Byl said. Partners in the initiative include WMEAC, LGROW, the city of Grand Rapids, consulting firm CSM, American Rivers, the Frey Foundation and the office of the Kent County Drain Commissioner.
At the community level, Grand Rapids adopted a revised stormwater management ordinance that emphasizes the use of low-impact development best management practices to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of stormwater runoff for new development projects. Furthermore, Grand Rapids has implemented stormwater runoff management techniques at Joe Taylor Park in the Baxter neighborhood. If the first one to two inches of rain that falls on a development is contained or slowed, the goal of keeping stormwater farther up the watershed is achieved.
Requirements for pervious surface areas have been included in the Grand Rapids’ updated zoning code, and additional steps have been taken to educate developers, engineers and public officials concerning LID techniques.
“We need to change the way we live and develop our communities so that nature can filter our water for us,” Hood said. “There are many ways for us to achieve this. We just need to do it.”
For more information, visit wmeac.org, lowergrandriver.org, or epa.gov/npdes/stormwater. GR
Tersaem Tesseris is a freelance writer in Grand Rapids and former editor of Peak & Prairie, quarterly newsletter of the Sierra Club - Rocky Mountain Chapter.