A new movement is sweeping gutters across America. It is storm drain stenciling: Not exactly art, but more than just gutter-dressing.
The message varies, but all messages are blunt. The stencils on my Seattle neighborhood gutters gracefully bracket the drain grate. "DUMP NO WASTE, DRAINS TO LAKE" they announce flatly. The silhouette of a fish (a guttersnipe? I know, I know. It's a salmon, of course) further adorns the drain.
Every day, thousands of Americans -- lazy or ignorant -- pour icky stuff down storm drains. Few statistics are available on exactly how much waste goes down, but water quality experts know it's a staggering amount. For example, the American Petroleum Institute estimates do-it-yourselfers pour 180 million gallons of used motor oil down storm drains every year. That means that every two weeks, oil equivalent to the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez goes into storm drains.
Just one quart of motor oil can foul the taste of a quarter million gallons of drinking water. A mere pint of oil spreads into a slick that can cover an acre of water, interfering with photosynthesis, killing insects vital to the food chain, coating fish gills and ultimately degrading the entire ecosystem.
Motor oil isn't the only junk we pour down storm drains. Perhaps you'll find your own contribution on this partial menu: antifreeze, which is highly toxic to animals; detergent from washing our cars, which is highly toxic to fish; paints, solvents, pesticides, herbicides, cleansers, dirt, debris and pet waste.
Most of us would never dream of dumping this stuff straight into a lake or stream, but storm drains provide such anonymity. It is dangerously easy to pour without ever thinking about where it goes from there.
Where does it go? Some storm drains are on a combined storm-sewer system. This water is usually treated at a sewage treatment plant. But most storm drain systems are independent of the city treatment plant. Rain water, along with whatever you have added, flows down the drain, into a pipe that connects with other pipes and makes its way downhill to the nearest lake, stream, river or bay, without any treatment whatsoever.
Water-quality officials all over North America long have worked on getting citizens to wise up about storm drains. Then, along came stenciling.
Vancouver, B.C., seems to have been the first to come up with the simple strategy of stenciling messages directly onto storm drains. The idea has caught on pretty quickly.
A stroll along the gutters of downtown Annapolis, Md., might net you: DON'T DUMP. CHESAPEAKE BAY DRAINAGE. The gutters of Rhode Island? DON'T DUMP. NARRAGANSETT BAY DRAINAGE. Sacramento, Calif.? DUMP NO WASTE. DRAINS TO STREAM. Baton Rouge, La.? DUMP NO WASTE. DRAINS TO BAYOU, with the silhouette of a bass. Kalamazoo, Mich.? DUMP NO WASTE. PROTECT YOUR GROUNDWATER.
Laura Arnow, an education specialist at Washington State's Department of Ecology, hopes that such messages will stop dumpers in their tracks. But the stenciling is most illuminating, she says, to the stencilers themselves. The hundreds of school groups, EarthCorps teams, neighborhood associations, Girl Scouts and so on who have checked out a stencil from their local water quality authority, scrubbed down the storm drains and painted away have really, as Arnow puts it, "gotten in touch with their storm drains."
Which brings me to you. Get in touch with your storm drain.
If you have the time to do a little volunteer work, call your water-quality agency. If they have a stenciling program, they can help get you started. Then you and your choir, or novel-reading group, or bowling team can spend a Saturday stenciling the gutters in your neighborhood, so that when you swim in the lake or the bay this summer, you'll find the water a little cleaner.