My son has asked me a few times recently about water pollution. It bothers him a lot, and I don’t blame him. It’s one of those phrases easy to say but harder to define, so here goes: Back in the seventies a teacher of mine defined pollution as “A resource in the wrong place.” That sure didn’t seem right to me then, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it was true.
Everyone knows if the Exxon Valdez hits a reef or the Deepwater Horizon (cursed be the name!) platform blows out that’s real pollution, and it’ll get a lot of well-deserved headlines, and those of us of a certain age remember all the pictures of chemical plants dumping waste directly into rivers. Some of us know the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland actually caught fire a few times! Oil can be pollution, chemicals can be, sewage, bacteria, silt, metals, dead things, even warmth. Too much of anything can be bad.
Inattentive farmers put vast amounts of pesticides and herbicides on their crops and burn vast amounts of fuel doing everything they do. Others let vast amounts of animal waste directly into streams. Most are much better these days- best practices and regulations have changed- but it still happens. “Roundup Ready” crops are genetically modified so they can stand large exposure to Roundup, an herbicide made by Monsanto. Their website is a masterful collection of Greenwashing tropes, but is wholly misleading.
When the earthquake hit Japan in March, 2011 they ran for their lives and there was no time to think about pollution. Five million tons of wreckage and debris was washed into the Pacific Ocean, most of it sinking, and 1.33 million tons of it went into the currents and was carried away. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 tons are expected to come ashore on the North American West Coast- the first identified in Oregon a year later- but most of it may end up circling in the Eastern Pacific Gyre (“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”). Here, 1999’s Hurricane Floyd did terrible damage to North Carolina and flushed millions of gallons of pig manure into rivers and streams. Natural disasters are horrible, and war can do damage on the same scale, as when Iraq blew up all those oil wells in the Gulf War.
But it wouldn’t do to get too smug. We, personally, are responsible for a huge amount of oil and other pollutants in the Sound. Tom Lehrer, the great singer/songwriter/commentator, wrote a song called “Pollution” in 1964, and it went a little like this-
“See the halibuts and the sturgeons
Being wiped out by detergents.
Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly,
But they don't last long if they try.
You can use the latest toothpaste,
And then rinse your mouth with industrial waste.”
It was a pointed reminder that what we do to our planet we do to ourselves.
Do you change your own oil or antifreeze? Do you ever pour it down the drain? Leftover paint? Cleaning fluids? Kill a fish, why don't you!
Do you let your car drip oil on the street? Fix it. You know how the weatherperson says to be careful when driving in the first rain after a long dry spell? That’s because all the oil all the cars have dripped onto the street will now be lifted up by the water and make everything slick. And run off into creeks, lakes, and the ocean.
Do you wash your car in the driveway? All the grit, oil, metals and all on the car run to the storm drains.
Is your driveway impervious (concrete or asphalt)? That only contributes to erosion and toxic runoff.
Do you drive?
Do you put fertilizers or pesticides or herbicides on your lawn?
Do you have a lawn?
Do you let your dog’s poop sit on your lawn, or someone else’s? Fecal coliform bacteria.
Do you litter? Do you ignore others’ litter?
Do you throw out things that could be recycled? New stuff always takes more material, energy, and water to produce than reused or recycled.
Do you take birth control pills? Yes, even peeing can be pollution. Our sewage treatment isn’t able to filter out or destroy the hormones in The Pill, so they go straight into the sea, and as estrogens build up the consequences can be alarming, such as widespread intersex fish, unable to reproduce.
Do you dump past-date pills down the toilet?
Do you eat farmed fish? Massive hormone and antibiotic loads and other problems.
It’s a daunting prospect, but not insurmountable, so this is what King County says an individual can do:
1 Maintain your car or truck. Never dump anything down a storm drain. Always recycle used oil, antifreeze and other fluids. Fix oil leaks in your vehicles.
2 Wash your car at a commercial car wash rather than in the street or in your driveway. If you wash your car at home, wash it on your lawn.
3 Drive less. Leave your car at home at least one day each week and take a bus, carpool or bike to work. Combine errands when you drive. Get vehicle emissions checked and repaired. Buy a low emission vehicle.
4 Cut down on fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. If you use these chemicals, follow directions and use them sparingly. Don't fertilize before a rainstorm. Consider using organic fertilizers. Let your lawn go golden brown in the summer months; it will rebound in the fall. Compost or mulch lawn clippings. Preserve existing trees or plant new ones - trees hold rainfall and help manage stormwater.
5 Remove part or all of your lawn. Lawns require a lot of watering, mowing and caring. Replace part of your lawn with native, drought-resistant plants. Add compost to planting soil and dress it with mulch to improve plant growth and reduce stormwater runoff.
6 If you are on a septic system, maintain the system. Septic systems require regular inspections, maintenance and pumping, or they will fail, cost a lot of money to fix and could pollute nearby lakes and streams. Have a professional inspector check your system regularly and have it pumped out when needed.
7 Pick up after your pets and keep animals out of streams. Scoop your dog's poop and properly dispose of it. Also, make sure fences and other structures are keeping cows, horses and other animals out of streams. Compost manure in a designated area so that it doesn't wash off into nearby waterways.
8 Reduce impervious surfaces at home and increase the vegetated land cover of your property. Impervious surfaces include your roof, driveway, patios and lawn. Reduce rooftop runoff by directing your downspouts to vegetated areas, and not to the storm drain on your street. For your driveway and patios, consider putting in permeable paving or patterns of cement and brick that allow water to filter through it.
9 Support your local storm or surface water program. Programs to maintain a community's stormwater system, prevent flooding and protect natural resources may cost money in the short run but save money for damages to public and private property in the long term. Take advantage of opportunities to educate yourself and your family about your local watershed. Consider volunteering for stream restoration or other local volunteer projects.
10 Make smart growth choices. Choose to live in a neighborhood that provides you with all conveniences- low maintenance homes and lawns, nearby shopping, walking paths, easy-access to buses and trains, and green, open spaces to enjoy.
This is our home. Shoreline. Lake Forest Park. With names like this how can we not put full effort into preserving and enhancing our waters?