Stormwater: Our responsibility

  • Published
  • By Nicole Johnston
  • 460 CES/CEIE
It's just _____

"It's just ¬_____. It occurs naturally. Why do I have to do anything about it?" This and similar questions are heard by stormwater management professionals all the time. I hope to illuminate some of the most frequently asked questions and their answers for our readers to create a better understanding of our impacts on our environment.

It's just dirt

Sediment, soil and dirt are all synonyms.It is the material that is transported via stormwater runoff or wind from areas of erosion, stockpiles, construction areas and farms. Yes, erosion does occur naturally over time, but the natural erosion process is much slower over time than it is in urban areas. This is due to the fact that urban areas cause runoff to occur in greater volumes and velocities than in nature, due to the amount of hard surface as water is not able to percolate into the ground as it does in undeveloped areas. The increase of unnatural erosion negatively impacts streams and rivers by reducing water clarity, physically damaging wildlife habitat and introducing man-made pollutants that would not have been present otherwise. Dirt from construction sites can come into contact with paints, petroleum, oils, lubricants or other chemicals that then get carried down to rivers and lakes. Farms and gardens often require tilling of the soil for planting which can allow irrigation and/or rain water to wash soil out to adjacent streams and creeks; these soils can and usually do contain fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are harmful to aquatic life.

It's just animal waste

Animal waste from pets and ranches occurs in a higher concentration than would be found in nature and these wastes are detrimental to our waterways by contributing fecal matter, phosphorus and nitrogen. Yes, wildlife do leave wastes in open space areas but these are generally broken down over time and absorbed through the land versus what occurs in urban areas and on ranches. In cityscapes, the increased hard surfaces do not allow as much opportunity for the natural breakdown and absorption of wastes and, consequently, the higher concentration of pet waste can enter our waterways much more readily than can waste from wild animals in their natural ecosystems. Ranches can also have high animal concentration areas with a significant amount of fecal matter that requires removal and proper disposal because there is little land absorption that occurs.

It's just leaves

Leaves on trees do fall in nature, and often in high concentrations, but the leaves don't move much with precipitation and decay in place which helps to nourish the surrounding vegetation. In contrast, we see large amounts of leaves building up on sidewalks, in streets, and clogging stormwater inlets and catch basins in cities and towns; this does not mimic nature. This excess vegetation in waterways decays which then depletes the water of precious oxygen and gives off excess phosphorus and nitrogen.

It's just a little spill/leak

In nature, there are no spills of oils/fuels, no leaking cars and no instances of household chemical dumping. The little bit here or there may look minor from where you are standing, but when you look at a city map with all its roads and parking areas, then think about multiplying that little spot by hundreds of miles of areas with small spills and leaks, it isn't quite so minor anymore. Every raindrop or snowflake that comes into contact with each small spot can carry some bit of that pollutant to our waterways. We are lucky in Colorado as many of our towns and cities are the first users of our surface water that is produced in large quantities by snowmelt runoff; however, it's important to remember that our activities can affect water quality for many people, plants and animals downstream that aren't the first users of their water.

It's just pollution

Pollutants deplete the oxygen that aquatic life needs to survive; these pollutants can contain heavy metals that are sometimes consumed by humans when fish are sourced and eaten from such polluted waters. Excess phosphorus and nitrogen can cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen and choke out other beneficial aquatic plants; one needs to look no further than the massive dead zone that perennially forms off of the coast of Louisiana each year to see how excessive nutrients can negatively affect water quality. Fecal matter creates harmful bacteria that can cause sickness from parasites and viruses when swimming; diseases and illness, such as typhoid fever, gastroenteritis, dysentery, and ear infections all can be contracted in waters with high fecal coliform counts.

It's just common sense

It is the world we live in and we are the ones that need to take care of it and clean up after ourselves. When we follow manufacturer's directions for use and disposal of chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and only use them as needed, we make a difference. When we as individuals take care of relatively small tasks such as cleaning-up after our pets, maintaining our vehicles, cleaning up spills, and raking up leaves, we can collectively make a big positive difference for our rivers, lakes and every organism that depends on them. If you do have a spill that has a chance of encountering stormwater, please call the Buckley Fire Department at 720-847-9117 to clean-up the spill. For any general questions about stormwater, please call 720-847-4655 or 720-847-6308.