I have a confession to make…I was once an environmental offender.
Not in an illegal sense and I was never fined for my actions, but if I knew then what I know now, I would have scolded tiny Christine. I never fully connected the dots until I started researching pollutant loads and working on the District’s TMDL Plan.
Growing up in Louisiana, especially with a bayou in my backyard, I wish I would have known more about the functions of a bayou’s ecosystem and how to minimize our impacts. I used to leave our dog’s poop on the ground, help wash our car in the driveway, put grass clippings and leaves in the storm drain, and other environmental offenses that I was not aware of at the time.
Along the banks of the bayou, where I played with my friends, there were huge pipes that stuck out of the earth that were almost 3 feet tall. My friends and I used them as hurdles as we ran along, playing pretend games of pirates or cops and robbers. I later learned they were outfall pipes that allow stormwater and even raw sewage to go into the bayou during heavy rain events.
Here are some key topics that kids and families can understand through easy graphics and outreach:
- Pet Waste: Growing up we had a dog, Ralph, a lab mix that we walked around the neighborhood and in the backyard. I hated picking up his poop- it was gross, it smelled bad, and attracted bugs. I would leave it in the yards, in the very yard I ran in, or if I had to pick it up I used a shovel to fling it into the bushes. Out of sight, out of mind, right? WRONG, tiny Christine.
- Why it matters: Aside from being really gross to step in, pet waste contains fecal coliform bacteria- one of the worst environmental offenders and most prevalent polluters of our waterways. Just one gram of dog poop contains over 13 million strains of fecal bacteria. Not only does it make waterways unsafe, it helps in acidifying the water, and robs it of valuable oxygen for the underwater ecosystem. Ever seen a fish survive in a tank without an air pump or regularly changed water? Me either!
- What you can do: Pick up that poop. Every time. Don’t just give those that leave the poop a dirty look, tell them about it! Educate your fellow neighbors and keep your open spaces clean.
- Organic Material: Grass clippings, fall leaves and pine needles, sediment. In suburbia, people love their lawns. They spend painstaking time carefully cultivating the perfect green carpet. It felt like my dad and our neighbor had an informal competition for who had the best patch of grass. This maintenance involved much grass mowing and raking of leaves by your disgruntled children- for zero allowance, I might add. But no matter the care you take to clean up afterwards, inevitably grass clippings and piles of leaves make their way into the storm drain, or if you are a lazy, angst-y teenager that doesn’t want to carry the wheelbarrow back to the compost pile, maybe you just dump it directly into the storm drain (sorry, bayou).
- Why it matters? Green materials like grass clippings carry nitrates into the waterways which sparks a process called “eutrophication” which basically causes plant life and algae to grow and choke off the animal life by absorbing all of the oxygen in waterbodies or waterways.
- What you can do: Compost it! Bag it and leave it for the recycling program! Your local state or town might just have a composting program that you can help contribute to. Also- monitor those lazy teenagers!
- Fertilizer and Pesticides: Similar to the impacts of grass clippings, fertilizing the lawn and applying pesticides are also harmful for waterways.
- Why it matters: The nutrient group known as NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium) can also cause eutrophication.
- What you can do: Follow state or local guidelines for fertilizer use, or, my preference- abandon the lawn completely! Planting your lawn more densely with beds of native plants makes for a more effective use of water (they don’t need it as often) and require less fertilization and reliance on pesticides because they are specifically tailored to your climate. Or, and the best option in my opinion, grow food not lawns! Agricultural land is quickly disappearing and with it, biodiversity of our fruits and vegetables. You can use your yard to grow food for you, your family, and neighbors and delight in the delicious varieties you won’t find in the grocery store. Just get your soil tested to be sure it is contaminant-free!
- Heavy Metals, Oils, Grease, and Surfactants: In residential areas, we have driveways and in those driveways we have cars, and when those cars get dirty, we wash them in our driveways, or on the streets. I bet you can just hear the 80’s hair metal and flop of sudsy sponges on the windows.
- Why it matters: Sure, car washing gets the sediment and dust off of your car, but the water carries that sediment along with oils from the car and the cleaning chemicals (called surfactants) into storm drains that then flow into waterways. Also, it’s just a waste of water.
- What you can do: Official car washing businesses have special requirements for filtration and retention of the soapy, oily, and sediment-laden water. Turn on Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” and go support those businesses.
I hope this helped enlighten a few of you. Educating each other and modeling better behaviors for our younger generations can help improve behaviors and waterways at the same time. If you need some help in explaining these or any other environmental issues you know who to call. We are relying on you-reader of this blog- now that you know better, do better. Pass it on!
Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and interests. She has been called a “renaissance woman” by her coworkers and is interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grass-roots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems that meet the needs of all users.