Countering pollution

How the rise of polluted water impacts our neighborhoods.
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The rise of city structures and impervious surfaces in which rain cannot penetrate the ground poses harmful effects to bodies of water. Photo by iStock

Reaching for a glass of water when we are thirsty is often an unconscious and automatic response. But as the faucet fills our cups, we also are trusting in our communities that this water is, in fact, clean.

“Stormwater runoff is not the sexiest topic,” said Elaine Sterrett Isely, director of water programs at West Michigan Environmental Action Council. “Water pollution is something that most people don’t want to think about. They want to turn on their tap and go fishing or kayaking, trusting that the water is in good shape. A lot of people think if there’s no big factory, there’s no big pollution, but we’re all contributing to water pollution. Everything that you do on the land will affect the water we drink.”

While stormwater runoff in and of itself is a natural process, the rise of city structures and impervious surfaces in which rain cannot penetrate the ground poses harmful effects to bodies of water. Bill Wood, executive director of WMEAC, said the most dangerous pollution sources are not factories or industrial plants like most assume but, rather, nonpoint sources that cannot be identified from one cause.

Illustration by James Heimer

“Stormwater has a tendency to wash all of the nonpoint source pollution that accumulates throughout periods of time between rainfall straight into the storm sewer, which then enters the Grand River or its tributaries. That’s harmful for a number of reasons because you’re getting debris in the river, such as trash, chemicals and potential pathogens that can originate from people not cleaning up after their dogs to agricultural operations with cattle,” Wood said.

While drinking polluted water or engaging in it for recreational activities can make us sick, those are not the only impacts that our neighborhoods see. Mixed with the rising number of impervious surfaces being built throughout the city, climate change also plays a factor in the escalation of severe storms. “We’re having these really intense precipitation events with rain and snow,” Wood said. “Both the natural world and human-built environment can’t handle that high volume of liquid coming down from the sky.”

According to Isely, higher precipitation levels and less permeable surface levels often result in flooding, river cresting and erosion of land and dunes. “Stormwater runoff is the largest source of water pollution to our waterways nationwide,” Isely said. “But water is life. We’re drinking it, bathing in it, recreating in it — we cannot live without good quality water.”

For Wood, stormwater management is key to help combat any further detrimental side effects that water pollution and climate change cause — no matter the season. In the summertime, for example, Wood said a parking lot could be baking in 85- or 90-degree temperatures, but once rainfall hits, stormwater runoff can alter the temperature of streams and rivers.

Warmer levels of water produce unhealthy living conditions for sea creatures, and in Michigan, it presents a dangerous threat to the trout population. “A temperature change of just a degree or two can affect the trout, particularly during the season where they spawn,” Wood said. “If the temperature of a stream gets altered for a long period of time, you could drive trout out of that stream for a generation.” Less trout population in Michigan would not only endanger the ecosystem, according to Wood, but it also would threaten the state’s economy since Michigan is a popular tourist destination for sport fishing.

“A lot of people think if there’s no big factory, there’s no big pollution, but we’re all contributing to water pollution. Everything that you do on the land will affect the water we drink.”
Elaine Sterrett Isely

To be proactive in dealing with water pollution, WMEAC believes long-term behavioral change results from educating the community on why it matters and providing them with tools that they accomplish themselves. Simple actions of keeping cars maintained so there is no leaking of chemicals, minimizing the amount of road salts used on driveways and sidewalks, and not mowing lawns below two inches so they can capture some of the rainfall can add up to make a big impact. Two proven strategies that WMEAC also recommends are implementing rain barrels and rain gardens throughout the community — both of which WMEAC can help with through workshops and installations.

In addition to WMEAC, the Adopt-a-Drain Lower Grand River Watershed project also aims to cut down on the amount of trash entering the Grand River by providing community members the location of the nearest storm basin. By adopting a drain, members not only monitor the cleanliness of their basin by picking up trash near it, but each basin also can be given a birthday and name.

As April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Wood said it is the perfect time to start thinking about your relationship to the planet and how you can keep the environment strong. “We’ve got one city and one planet,” Wood said. “It’s everyone’s responsibility to look out for each other. If everybody does a little bit by trying to mitigate stormwater and flooding, we’re helping everyone out by providing clean water for future generations.”

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