Stormwater Pollution: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Storm Drain
Stormwater runoff pollutes our waters (Credit: Flickr / Chesapeake Bay Program)

As a new volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium, I am just as amazed and curious as the everyday visitor and always full of questions. Walking into my shift this week was no exception, and I couldn’t help but notice how murky and full of sediment our exhibits were. I promptly asked my shift leader what was going on.

She started to explain, “Our pumps are an open system with the Puget Sound, and when there’s a heavy rain, large amounts of stormwater runs off, polluting the Sound and therefore our exhibits. “

“Gross, so this is what the Sound looks like under the surface,” I responded.

“Probably worse,” she commented as she frowned and walked away.

I really didn’t put much more thought into this and started moving toward my assigned position at the Harbor Seal exhibit. As I walked between Pier 59 and 60, admiring the beautiful views of Alki Beach and the Olympic Mountains, I looked down and was taken aback by the murky waters that Elliott Bay had transformed into, seemingly overnight.

Stormwater runoff is created when rain flows off developed land into nearby streams, rivers, and in Seattle, into Puget Sound.  Piped through drainage systems and streaming along streets, it becomes a contaminated stew, picking up oil, grease, heavy metals, household chemicals, pesticides, bacteria, and other filth. In fact, stormwater runoff from our roads and urban areas carries 75% of the toxic chemicals entering Puget Sound, and is the number one water pollution problem in the state.

Most people understand that development causes runoff, and runoff causes pollution. But because storm drains typically empty underwater, we don’t see the pollution dumping into our local waters. Unlike smokestacks that pump out a scary black plume, it’s more difficult to connect our everyday actions – driving, lawn care, cleaning roof gutters, pet waste, garbage disposal, construction, farming, and paving – to runoff pollution.

Rampant development in floodplains has contributed to this problem because floodplains naturally help manage and cleanse stormwater. High runoff flows can cause flooding, damage property, and destroy habitat. By restoring floodplain functions, it will improve water quality and help to restore Puget Sound.

Usually, all we get to see of the Puget Sound is the surface water, but while looking at the aquarium exhibits that day, I got a small glimpse of what it might be like to live in Puget Sound. While watching the rains subside and the surface waters of Elliot Bay go back to blue throughout the day, I thought about how easy it is to forget that under the surface, a dark stream of polluted runoff empties into the Sound every time it rains.

We all have a responsibility to keep our waters clean for wildlife and people.  At home there are many simple ways to cut down on polluted runoff:

  • wash your car at a designated carwash,
  • don’t ever dump anything down the stormdrain,
  • maintain your car or truck,
  • cut down on fertilizers,
  • plant more native drought-resistant plants,
  • pick up after your pets

If we all make a little change in our daily lives it can result in a huge positive impact on our iconic waters of the Pacific Northwest.

If you would like to learn more about how to reduce stormwater runoff pollution, visit the King County stormwater services or the Puget Sound Partnership websites. Furthermore, to find out what action is being taken locally check out the Environmental Priorities Coalition 2011 Clean Water Jobs Act or National Wildlife Federation Pacific Regional Center Floodplains websites.