Making Neighborhood Waters Child Safe & Friendly
Chances are there’s a stream, lake, or tidal creek a short walk from your home. These neighborhood waters can greatly enhance our quality of life. They are also a playground our children find irresistible even when it’s a small, headwater stream like that pictured below. For the 80% of us living in suburban-urban areas, our neighborhood waters may not be as clean as we would like. Far too many are fouled with pollution washed from streets and lawns, human waste leaking from sewerlines, and mud eroded from construction sites. The good news is that tremendous progress has been made in methods to clean up neighborhood waters. However, few neighborhood waters have been fully restored and most continue to be something less than Child Safe & Friendly. With a few hours of time you can ensure that your home and yard have a mostly beneficial effect on nearby waters. With a bit more time you can help others who live on your street achieve much more by forming a Neighborhood Waters Alliance.
WHAT DOES CHILD SAFE & FRIENDLY MEAN?The waters nearest our homes should be teeming with fish and the other aquatic life we find so fascinating. These waters should also be clean enough for wading or even swimming without fear of disease. And even if kids don’t wade or swim it’s inevitable that tiny wet hands will find their way to a mouth or nose. Our neighborhoods waters are made unsafe by the pet waste and other wildlife droppings washed from our lawns and streets. Releases of human waste from the sewerlines paralleling many neighborhood waters adds another cause for concern. These and other sources cause 23% of our rivers and streams to contain levels of disease-causing organism indicators which exceed public health protection standards. A tremendous amount of nutrients and toxic pollutants settle upon our rooftops, streets and other impervious surfaces. With each storm these pollutants wash into our neighborhood waters making life very difficult for fish and other aquatic creatures. For further information on the cause and science regarding these impacts click on: How Development Impacts Aquatic Resources.
ARE YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD WATER CHILD SAFE & FRIENDLY?Following are a couple of general indicators of the health of neighborhood waters. The indicators work best in the warm months of summer.
Lakes, Ponds & Tidal WatersYou should be able to see the bottom of a lake, pond or tidal waterway at a depth of six feet in the summer. An abundance of submerged grasses, fish, crabs and other aquatic creatures should be visible as well. Far too many waters look like that pictured to the left. You can only see a foot or so into the murk. Few grasses, fish or other critters are present. In suburban-urban areas poor water quality is usually caused by the nutrients stemming from fertilized lawns, pet waste and auto exhaust washed from lawns, rooftops and streets with each rain. Mud eroded from construction sites and other areas of exposed soil adds to the pollution of suburban-urban waters.
Freshwater Streams & RiversFish provide the easiest method for assessing stream and river quality. They should be present in all waters from small, headwater streams to large rivers and lakes. If you don’t see any fish and the waterway is small, then look downstream at points where the stream is bigger. If fish are still absent then the stream is probably in poor condition. If fish are present but there’s only one kind (species) then the stream may still be degraded. The presence of several different kinds of fish frequently indicates good quality. Click on the following title for a checklist providing an additional, more accurate method for assessing the health of streams and rivers: CEDS Stream Quality Checklist.
CAUSES OF POOR QUALITY NEIGHBORHOOD WATERSFor the 80% of us who live in suburban-urban areas, it is our homes, streets, our schools, and the places where we work and shop that are the cause of poor quality neighborhood waters. The degradation began when forests and fields were cleared for construction of our homes and massive quantities of eroded soil washed into nearby waters. The impacts were perpetuated when denuded soils were covered by buildings, roads and other impervious surfaces as well as lawns. A tremendous amount of pollution comes to rest on these surfaces which is then washed into neighborhood waters with each rain. Additional impact comes from sewerline leaks, the release of pollution into storm drains, and other sources. For further detail on these causes of degradation visit the CEDS webpage: Protecting Wetlands, Streams, Lakes, Tidal Waters & Wells from the Impacts of Land Development.
AT HOME ACTIONS TO MAKE NEIGHBORHOOD WATERS CHILD SAFE & FRIENDLYFollowing are a few steps you can take to make your neighborhood waters more Child Safe & Friendly.
Divert Downspouts Onto Your LawnA lot of bird droppings and air pollutants accumulate on our rooftops. With each rain these pollutants wash into neighborhood waters. When a downspout dumps onto a driveway, sidewalk or into the street the full load of rooftop pollution is delivered to your neighborhood waters. Diverting rain spouts onto lawn or garden areas allows roof runoff to soak into the soil where much of the pollution is removed. To avoid basement wetness, only do this where the soil surface slopes away from your home.
Replace Lawn with Trees-ShrubsTo achieve Child Safe & Friendly waters, about half the land draining to neighborhood waters should be canopied by trees. Trees are sort of clean water machines allowing rain to soak into the soil which eventually emerges from springs very clean. The more trees you plant on your property, the better your local waters will be. Shrubs and ground covering plants are good too since most do not require the fertilizers-pesticides that can harm aquatic life.
Lawn PollutionWith proper care lawn impacts to neighborhood waters can be reduced. Mow grass no shorter than three inches, clippings should be left on the lawn, and only fertilize in the fall. For further advice Google the name of your state plus “Best Practices Lawn Care”.
Pick-Up Pet WastePet waste contains many disease-causing organisms which wash into neighborhood waters with each rain. In fact, a large portion of the disease-causing organisms present in neighborhood waters come from pet waste washed from lawns by stormwater. Some folks tend to discount pet waste as a pollution source when compared to wildlife droppings. Fortunately, most wildlife waste is deposited in forests where very little is washed into nearby waters by runoff. Lawns generate up to four times the runoff volume compared to forests. Removing pet waste from your lawn makes neighborhood waters more child safe and friendly.
Exposed Soil = PollutionTo get a sense of compliance with pollution control laws in your area, check out construction sites you pass by. If you see exposed soil on a site then you can assume that come the next storm a nearby waterway will be polluted. That’s because measures like the black silt fence you see here cannot keep enough mud on a site to prevent pollution. If road or building construction has begun then you’re also seeing a violation of federal and state clean water laws. You can help ensure that government agencies provide contractors with the support they need to comply with this law by advocating for Child Safe Waters funding.
Support Child Safe Water FundingWhile taking actions around the home is essential, it’s not enough to restore neighborhood waters to a Child Safe & Friendly condition. About half the pollution degrading these waters is washed from streets, parking lots and other impermeable surfaces. Though the technology is well established for treating this runoff, most local governments lack the funds to accomplish this goal. If the same is true for your area, then consider urging your elected officials to create a Child Safe Waters Fund by adding $25 to $50 per home to your annual tax-bill. making neighborhood waters safe
Help Your Neighbors to Restore Your WatersFor a factsheet you can use to inform your neighbors of opportunities to achieve Child Safe & Friendly Waters click on: Making Your Neighborhood Waters More Child-Safe & Friendly.
ACTIONS TO MAKE A WATERSHED MORE CHILD SAFE & FRIENDLYTo fully restore neighborhood waters to a Child Safe & Friendly condition:
- All rooftops, streets, parking lots and other impervious surfaces should drain to Rain Gardens or other highly-effective stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs),
- Releases of wastewater from sewerlines should become very rare,
- A minimum of 40% of the land area draining to a waterway – the watershed – should be canopied by trees,
- All exposed soil on construction sites should be protected with straw mulch, grass, stone or other erosion measures, and
- It may be necessary to restore instream habitat though all too frequently, restoration efforts focus on stream channel reconstruction without addressing impervious surface runoff.
Stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs)Ponds are the most familiar of stormwater BMPs. Rain Gardens are becoming more common and are much more effective in protecting neighborhood waters. To restore neighborhood waters CEDS suggests:
- Ensuring that existing BMPs are being well maintained,
- Build public support for retrofitting areas not served with existing BMPs, then
- Verify that new development is utilizing highly-effective BMPs.