Environmental Protection


Improving Surface Water Quality at Home

All water runoff eventually ends up in the surface waters. The route in which the water takes determines the quality of the surface waters. One route for water flow is through seepage into the ground and then to surface waters. Water also travels a more direct route by stormwater drains or the sanitary sewer lines. If water goes through the stormwater drains, it does not receive any treatment. If liquid or debris goes down the stormwater drain with the water, then it also goes directly to the surface water. Water sent to the waste water treatment plant, by sanitary sewer lines, is treated and then discharged out to surface waters. However, there are instances in which the waste water treatment plant cannot treat the water due to a liquid or debris in the water. If this occurs, then some of the water could enter the surface waters without adequate treatment.

As a community we need to control what we place on the lawn, put down household drains and stormwater drains, and send to the landfills. Some factors that reduce the quality of our surface waters are sediments, debris, soil erosion, stormwater runoff, chemicals, organic matter, and leachate from landfills.

Sediment - Material deposited by water, wind, or glaciers
Organic - Living matter and by products of living matter. Examples include plants and animal wastes.
Chemical - Household cleaners, oils, lawn products, paints, and auto care products
Surface Water - Rivers, lakes, oceans, ponds, creeks, and streams
Leachate - Liquid waste formed by organic matter decomposing and when rain seeps into the landfill picking up chemicals from the wastes

Sediment and Debris

Sediment deposit is the number one pollutant to our surface waters. A primary cause of sedimentation in our surface waters is improper sediment controls during construction. Settling ponds and filter fences are used to contain eroded sediment, picked up by stormwater runoff, on the construction site. These types of controls filter out the sediment before the stormwater runoff enters the surface waters. Some sediment controls reduce the rate at which the stormwater runoff is flowing allowing the sediment to settle before it reaches the surface waters.

Sediment and debris that settle at the bottom of surface waters destroy animal and plant habitats, and in some cases the sediment and debris kill these organisms. Sediment and debris that float in the surface waters prevents light from passing through, hindering plant respiration, animal respiration and digestion.

Activity Why
Sweep paved surfaces This prevents sediment and debris from entering storm drains
Consider an alternate de-icer to replace sand Sand clogs the stormwater drains and buries aquatic animals and plants
Preserve and plant trees Trees help to keep the soil in place
Use stones, wood decks, patios, or interlocking stones instead of pavement These items allow stormwater runoff to seep into the ground, thus reducing the amount of sediment picked up by stormwater runoff
Sweep leaves away from storm drain openings, curbs, and paved areas This keeps the storm drains clear and keeps the leaves out of the runoff

Soil Erosion and Stormwater Runoff

Soil erosion and stormwater runoff occurs when the environment is changed. Many times the changes are made to develop an area. Construction typically removes plant life at the development site. When it rains, there is nothing on the site to keep the soil in place. The soil is carried to surface waters via stormwater runoff. Soil erosion continues even after the development is completed. Now the stormwater does not have a place to seep into the ground. Again stormwater runoff is formed, following any path it can find. Eventually the runoff will find a stream or creek, but the force of the flowing water is much greater than before, thus eroding the streambank. The material picked up by the runoff will now be deposited in the larger surface waters. The erosion caused by the runoff destroys animal and plant habitats along the streambank.

Activity Why
Do not over water This keeps the amount of runoff to a minimum
Guide stormwater onto grass Allows the stormwater to filter into the ground
Install gravel trenches along driveway or patios (1 foot deep by 3 foot wide) This allows the stormwater to filter slowly into the ground
Use stones, wood decks, patios, or interlocking stones instead of pavement Unlike pavement, these items allow stormwater to seep into the ground, decreasing the amount of stormwater runoff
Sweep leaves away from storm drain openings, curbs, and paved areas This keeps the storm drains clear
Use a single pathway to the edge of the water for access This will keep the soil in place and prevent sediment from washing into the surface waters
Plant and protect vegetation on stream banks and areas nearby Vegetation prevents the soil from becoming loose and eroding into the surface waters
Clear away fallen trees and debris from natural waterways and stormwater drains Clear waterways and stormwater drains reduces the intensity of the stormwater runoff
Keep grazing animals and heavy loads away from the edge of the water Grazing animals eliminate the plants needed to keep the soil in place
Protect wetlands Wetlands slow down and store runoff, and also filter out pollutants

Chemicals and Organic Matter

Microbes (bacteria) are organisms that decompose organic matter. When chemicals and biodegradable materials are washed to surface waters algae and weeds begin to grow at a fast rate. After the algae blooms, it dies and starts to decompose. The microbes come in to help with this process using up the dissolved oxygen that is needed by aquatic plants and animals.

Chemicals that go through sanitary sewer lines can kill the microbes needed to "clean" the waste water, thus reducing the effectiveness of the waste water treatment plant. Or, the chemically tainted water may bypass the treatment process at the plant, and go straight to the surface waters. This is not any different than dumping the chemical onto the ground or down the stormwater drains.

Materials that are sent to landfills increase the potential to pollute ground water and surface waters. The materials, chemical and biodegradable, decompose, making leachate. The leachate has the potential to filter through the ground, contaminating the ground water and surface waters.

Activity Why
Compost yard waste Yard waste provides too many nutrients for organisms found in surface waters
Sweep leaves away from storm drain openings, curbs,and paved areas Leaves provide too many nutrients for organisms found in surface waters
Recycle Recycling reduces the amount of material going to the landfills
Use ground cover rather than grass Ground cover does not need to be fertilized and does not require a lot of upkeep
Use native plants Native plants can sustain themselves naturally
Pick up animal waste and bag it, and keep grazing animals away from the edge of the water This prevents animal waste, which is organic, from entering surface waters
Maintain septic tank and field A septic tank is like a mini waste water treatment plant, treating household wastes before the water filtering into the ground
Drain swimming pools onto expanse lawn This allows the chlorine to evaporate and the water to filter slowly into the soil
Consider an alternate de-icer to replace salt Salt contaminates the drinking water supply and can be toxic to fish
Use non-hazardous cleaning products Non-hazardous cleaning products can be treated at the waste water plant before being discharged to surface waters
Properly dispose of hazardous household waste This will prevent hazardous household waste from going to the landfills and from interfering with the process at the waste water treatment plant
Avoid chemical fertilizers, and if used, follow the directions given Excess fertilizer encourages algae and weed growth in surface waters
Use pesticides labeled with "caution" apply the amount specified and only to the plants and areas stated in the instructions These pesticides are considered the least toxic; pesticides can harm people, animals, and helpful plants
Never use pesticides near wells, streams, ponds or wetlands To prevent the pesticides from getting into the water supplies
Shovel or sweep any spills into a container and dispose properly To prevent the pesticides from getting into the water supplies
If a pesticide spills into a waterway, build a soil dam down stream and contact the proper environmental authorities The soil dam will absorb the pesticide and the environmental authorities can clean up the dam and dispose the soil properly

We would like to acknowledge the following documents as sources of information for this article:

Community Partners for Clean Streams,
written by The Washtenaw County Office
of the Drain Commissioner

Controlling Nonpoint Source Pollution in the Huron River Watershed,
written by The Washtenaw County Office
of the Drain Commissioner

Soil Erosion & Sedimentation Control Training Program,
presented by Claude A. Schmitt,
Land and Water Management Division,
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

The Stormwater Management Program for the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Campus,
written by Terry Alexander,
Occupational Safety & Environmental Health,
University of Michigan

Water Resources - an Essay on Managing Water in Public Works,
written by The American Public Works Association