August 12, 2009

Soapy water pollution obscures a greater storm drain solution

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When I came across this piece in the Tacoma News Tribune, I thought: How many articles do we need about the ramifications of car wash runoff in storm drains? The idea that folks might still be oblivious to the toxic soapy suds associated with washing their wheels in paved driveways had never occurred to me. But boy, was I was wrong. The article by Debbie Abe of the News Tribune explained:

Many people don’t realize that what goes down storm drains flows untreated into South Sound waterways, polluting the habitat of salmon, crabs and countless other sea critters.

Abe found that half of those surveyed in Pierce County, Wash., thought that stormwater eventually made its way to a treatment facility. But the fact is, unlike public sanitary sewer systems, most  storm drains flow directly into neighboring bodies of water.

The article does a fine job covering alternatives to driveway lathering, including commercial car washes, which often recycle and filter waste water, as well as the adoption of fish-friendly car wash kits at fundraising events.

But halting noxious car suds is only a part of a bigger issue in preventing stormwater pollution. InvestigateWest’s own Robert McClure followed the story in 2008 as Washington State decided to mandate low-impact building techniques in its largest cities to “rein in the largest source of most of the Puget Sound’s worst pollutants.” Low Impact Development,) or LID, is a development approach to managing storm water in a way that mimics natural processes. LID building techniques minimize hard surfaces like pavement, which allow pollutants to easily slide into storm drains and nearby streams. LID focuses instead on natural landscape features, such as “rain gardens”, that absorb and filter drainage.

After last year’s ruling by the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board, when Washington began telling local governments to prohibit home car washing unless residents diverted water away from storm drains, the public was not exactly cooperative, reported William M. Welch of USA Today. Vancouver, Wash., resident Pat Thompson, who calls himself an environmentalist, was quoted as saying that a ban on driveway washing was “getting a little bit too far.”


Which makes me ask: If people aren’t willing to confront the obvious stormwater pollutants, then how are we going to address the less talked about ones?

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