Residential Stormwater: How You Can Help Limit This Pollutant

By Maureen Wise in Thinking Sustainably

It may sound crazy, but rain can be a pollutant. Rain water or melted snow that runs off buildings, paved surfaces, or hard structures outdoors becomes stormwater when it picks up road salt, fertilizer, car oil spots on the driveway, litter, and more, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Residential stormwater pollution is a big deal because there's no one source; it's all of us, so it's really hard to stop or track. Stormwater's extra warmth and pollutants harm aquatic life in our local waterways: the lakes, rivers, wetlands that are the backbone of our watersheds. Since stormwater is a pollutant that we are all responsible for, we can all make individual choices to help reduce the problem.

Where Does the Water Flow?

Stormwater can flow either directly into a waterway or through your city or town's storm drains. Just because water is going through pipes doesn't mean it's being filtered. That fertilizer washing into drains from lawns and fields can cause overgrowths of algae and deplete oxygen for life in ponds and streams, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the winter, writes Drink Local Drink Tap, road salt can flow into streams and kill fish, amphibians, and even trees. However, letting rain water filter into the ground can disperse these pollutants into the soil and recharge the aquifers where most of our nation's drinking water comes from. How do you get water underground? There are a few easy solutions that can help you start in your own backyard.

Reduce Your Impervious Surfaces

Stormwater is created by running over surfaces that don't let rain water percolate into the ground. Gravel, grass, and gardens let water back into the ground, while harder spaces like patios, driveways, and roofs do not. When you reduce the "hard footprint" of your property, you reduce the overall stormwater volume produced.

To help reduce water runoff, add gravel or mulch paths in your gardens instead of brick or stone. On your patio, you can add gravel between bricks or stones. If you are replacing your driveway, consider pervious pavement or gravel and brick instead of asphalt, suggests the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association.

Use Your Own Backyard

Luckily you can be part of the solution to limiting stormwater's impact on the environment. Here are some measures you can take in your own backyard.

  • Rain barrel. A rain barrel is a container that stores stormwater running out of your gutters for you to use later. (This Old House offers a great tutorial for setting one up in your yard.) You can water your flowers or veggies, sprinkle the grass, or keep your compost damp with this water, but don't fill the kiddie pool or drink from it since it has collected dirt and debris from your roof. Using your stormwater instead of sending it to the storm drain is even better than recycling. It's reducing and reusing at the same time!

barrel full of leaves and water under downspout

  • Rain garden. Another way to use your stormwater is to send it into a rain garden. Rain Garden Network explains that these specially planned plantings are filled with native plants and prairie grasses with deep, strong roots. Rain gardeners direct water from a downspout into this garden and the water moves along the roots down into the soil, away from foundations and storm drains. A rain garden doesn't have to be all about function, either. Native plants attract beautiful local wildlife like butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Healthy lawn. If your grass is healthy, its deep roots will also help reduce stormwater pollution. Just like in a rain garden, water will percolate more easily into the ground led by the roots of your grass. To ensure your grass is healthy, aerate your lawn annually and only mow a third of the grass height at a time. If you must, water deeply and infrequently (weekly at the most).

longhaired cat on green lawn by native plant garden

Disconnect Your Downspout

One of the most important steps you can take to decrease residential stormwater pollution is to keep your stormwater on your own property. Do this by disconnecting the direct line from gutters to the storm drains. Check out your downspouts. Do they lead to a 90 degree elbow into your yard or driveway, or do they lead into the ground? If they are buried, your roof's stormwater shoots right into the storm drain.

This is a huge problem in areas that have combined sewer systems (CSS). Here's the definition from the EPA: "A CSS collects rainwater runoff, sewage, and wastewater into one pipe. Under normal conditions, it transports all of this wastewater to a sewage treatment plant for treatment, then discharges to a water body. The volume of wastewater can sometimes exceed the capacity of the CSS (during heavy rainfall or snowmelt). When this occurs, untreated stormwater and wastewater discharges directly to nearby streams, rivers, and other water bodies." So, if we have less stormwater entering a CSS, we have less polluted water entering streams, lakes, and rivers during high water events.

Be part of the solution to the pollution problem by directing your gutter runoff into your healthy, deep-rooted grass, your rain barrel, or your rain garden. Check out the step-by-step instructions and video from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to disconnect your downspout. It's a project you can do in about a half hour for less than $100.

We'd love to hear from you if you decide to disconnect your downspout or install a rain garden. Share your experience and tag us on Twitter!

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Why It’s Good

By helping water percolate into the ground instead of into a water treatment plant via a storm drain, you are feeding aquifers, which are the headwaters of streams, lakes, and wetlands. This is doubly good because stormwater itself is a pollutant to these same bodies of water.