August 22, 2010 in Idaho Voices

Teens spray reminders to keep wastewater clean for lake’s sake

Jacob Livingston

As far as first jobs go, 17-year-old Darin Bonie believes he’ll have fond memories of his summer gig.

In his workday, Bonie and four other teenagers walk several miles of streets, spray painting the ground at certain spots and distributing educational handouts as they march along. Their work is an important part of the Coeur d’Alene Stormwater Utility’s summer project to spread one clear-cut message: what goes into the city’s storm water drains ends up in the water where people go to play.

“It’s great, I like it. The way I look at it we’re getting paid to tag a sidewalk,” said Bonie, the sun beating down on the troop of teens on a recent weekday morning.

Supervisor Emily Davis led the group, bedecked with orange safety vests and hand tools, as they canvassed midtown. One person interpreted a Google Maps image that pinpointed the area’s scattered storm drains, while another hung bright green informational fliers on each house. The rest took turns sweeping away the debris around the drain and spray painting a stenciled image on the surface.

The group of area high school students represents the tip of the spear for the storm drain marking program, For The Sake of Our Lake. The program reminds citizens to not dump anything down storm water drains. Informational fliers advocate, among other things, washing cars on the lawn instead of hard pavement surfaces and using pesticides and fertilizers sparingly. “Dump no waste, flows to our lake,” read the stencils on the streets.

“The goal is to protect the river, lake and aquifer. We drink it, we fish in it, we eat the fish – we want to keep it clean,” said engineering project manager Dennis Grant of Coeur d’Alene Stormwater Utility. “So why would we want to have pet waste in there or change your oil or pour antifreeze down there or even wash a car (on the driveway). All those suds and crud get down into our storm sewer, and that flows right into the river untreated. Our job is to minimize that, so we’re trying to promote this as much as we can.”

Why the danger?

Storm water, according to a definition on the city’s website, is rain or snow that has bonded with chemical pollutants, such as those from cars and power plants, as it falls through the atmosphere, in a process known as atmospheric wet deposition, but has not soaked into the ground. As the contaminated water molecules smack the ground, impervious surfaces such as roadways, parking lots, driveways and roofs carry the runoff to the nearest storm drain, collecting additional pollutants along the way.

By the time the untreated water flows into the nearest body of water through one of 13 outfalls that flow into the lake or Spokane River, the contaminated mixture can include oil, grease, heavy metals, pet waste and a variety of other impurities.

The For the Sake of Our Lake project aims to remind North Idaho residents that what goes down the drains ends up at the beach. The project shares many of the same principles that govern the city’s storm water utility: reducing the potential for storm water pollution and improving the underground conduits that make up the city’s storm water infrastructure, a separate system from wastewater sewers, while protecting water quality.

The utility, which performs a host of other functions around the city including installing new storm water catch basins, cleaning out swales, unclogging drain inlets, picking up more than 1,400 tons of leaves per year and sweeping some 7,000 miles of streets annually, is funded by a $4 monthly fee on the city utility bill.

Active for several years

Volunteer groups have carried out stenciling in previous years, and the storm water utility has been working behind the scenes on the project for several years, said assistant storm water project manager Kim Harrington.

In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued permits for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, a five-year directive that sets guidelines for integrating a storm water management system citywide. It also calls for public education and outreach, working with homeowners associations, and new construction site runoff collection. As part of the permit, the utility installed two monitoring stations this year: one of the washing machine-size outbuildings records runoff into the lake near the Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course, while the other monitors outflow into the Spokane River near the Riverstone development.

“Part of our permit requires us to stencil storm drains and provide storm water education to the public. Stenciling the storm drains serves as a warning to residents that pollutants entering the drains will be carried untreated to our lake,” Harrington said. “Our permit requires us to stencil a minimum of 100 storm drains per year; the summer youth have well exceeded this amount.”

The five teens taking part were hired by the city through the Idaho Department of Labor Summer Youth Employment Program, a six-week position that stresses the value of first-time job experiences and successful employment. Stenciling the phrase “Dump no waste, flows to our lake” along with the image of a fish, the city-sanctioned graffiti workers cover five miles a day, four days a week. So far, they’ve hit roughly 500 storm drains.

Seventeen-year-old Janet LaClair walked along Walnut Avenue with the rest of the crew, scanning the street for drains and picking up garbage. “You learn a lot of different things,” she said, referring to the list of tips offered on the flier, “like that the wastewater and sewer water are different systems. I think it showed us teamwork, too – how to work together.”

“I’m scared to swim in the lake now,” Tiffany Wallace, 17, said with a laugh. “This project gives the community the awareness of what’s going into the lake and river.”

City plans storm water tests

So far, the city has yet to test the storm water runoff because the monitoring stations were only recently built. In the next year, however, that will change when storms roll through the region and the stations begin collecting water once the flow reaches a certain tipping point during heavy rain or snowfall. A 36-inch pipe at each station will then collect samples while a rain gauge will measure how much storm water is flowing out. Water samples will go to a local lab and be tested for the amount of sewer water and other contaminants, such as fertilizers, lead, zinc, nitrogen and phosphorus, that are entering the system. Video will also monitor the pipes for illegal hookups.

“That’s brand new as of this month. This is a five-year permit and we’re in the beginning stages of this,” Grant said. “Once we collect samples for a year, we figure out well, what’s going on here, what are the bad nasties coming into our water? It may be just fine, but we want to find out if it is or not.”

The reaction from residents has been encouraging so far, the utility’s Harrington said.

“I have had very positive feedback on the project,” she said. “For example I had a lady call and say that she had received the educational material. A few days later she had some painters at her home and they were rinsing their brushes in the street and she stopped them. She said prior to receiving the educational materials she wouldn’t have thought of where that water was going.”

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