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.

children playing in a suburban stream

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.


Aquatic abundant fishThe 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 sewer overflowdroppings 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.

street runoffA 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.


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 Waters

You 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 in hand

Fish 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.


For 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.


Following are a few steps you can take to make your neighborhood waters more Child Safe & Friendly.

Divert Downspouts Onto Your Lawn

A 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-Shrubs

lawn with treesTo 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 Pollution

With 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 Waste

Pet 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 = Pollution

To 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 Funding

While 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 Waters

For 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.


To fully restore neighborhood waters to a Child Safe & Friendly condition:

  • 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.

Following is detail on pursuing each of these opportunities in your watershed.

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.

Existing Stormwater BMPs

In many parts of the U.S., large portions of suburban-urban areas drain to existing ponds and other stormwater BMPs. A best first step to making neighborhood waters more Child Safe & Friendly is to see if your home drains to a BMP. If it does then a few easy-to-use indicators will allow you to determine if the BMP has been maintained properly. In many areas poor maintenance has resulted in the failure of many BMPs.

Restoring failing BMPs is the quickest, easiest way of reducing pollution releases to neighborhood waters. Advice for finding, evaluating, and winning correction of failing BMPs is provided in the following CEDS YouTube presentation: Watershed Audits & Stormwater BMPs.

Additional background on BMPs can be found in the Stormwater Management section of the CEDS webpage Protecting Wetlands, Streams, Lakes, Tidal Waters & Wells from the Impacts of Land Development.

Retrofitting Untreated Areas with BMPs

Through retrofitting, BMPs are installed where none presently exists. Retrofits can range from installing a rain barrel at the end of a downspout to a Rain Garden designed to treat street runoff.

In many parts of the U.S. programs exist to help residents install practices to treat roof runoff from their homes. A recent survey in the Chesapeake Bay watershed indicated that a large percentage of residents would be open to installing these practices. For further information see The Homeowner’s Guide to Stormwater.

Making Sure New Development Doesn’t Pollute

Over the last decade many states have begun requiring the use of more effective stormwater BMPs for new development. However, in far too many instances measures of the less-effective type are allowed. If development is proposed for your watershed then determine if highly-effective practices will be used. Guidance for making this determination is provided in the Evaluating Aquatic Resource Protection section of the CEDS webpage Protecting Wetlands, Streams, Lakes, Tidal Waters & Wells from the Impacts of Land Development.

Sewer Releases

In most suburban-urban areas the wastewater from bathrooms, kitchens and laundries flows to sewerlines that carry it to a treatment plant. It is estimated that wastewater escapes from sewerlines 23,000 to 75,000 times a year in the U.S. Because many sewerlines are installed along streams and other waterways the wastewater can quickly enter these waters.

A number of states have online databases where sewerline overflow records are posted. An example is the Maryland database. If such a database exists in your area then check it for releases to your neighborhood waters. Also, as you walk along a sewerline check each manhole for indications of overflows. If the items routinely flushed down toilets are lying on or near the manhole cover, then an overflow has probably occurred. If you believe an overflow has occurred then report it to a local public works or health agency.

When a release occurs those who own and maintain the sewerline are required to report it then take corrective action. Additional background on sewer overflows and enforcement can be found at the USEPA Sanitary Sewer Overflows webpage.

Tree Cover

A number of scientific studies have documented that aquatic resource health is directly related to the percent of a watershed with tree cover. Tree cover alone however will not significantly improve neighborhood waters without first treating all impervious surface runoff with highly-effective stormwater BMPs. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed a minimum 40% watershed forest cover is needed to achieve good quality waters. In general, good quality also equates to Child Safe & Friendly waters.

In addition to increasing tree cover around each home, look about the watershed for other vacant areas that could be converted to forest. If the property owner agrees to plant trees then your local or state environmental agencies may assist.

Many localities require the preservation of a portion of the forest on proposed development sites. It is relatively easy to determine if such a requirement exists in your area and, if so, whether new development in your watershed fully complies.

Construction Site Erosion Control

To get a sense of compliance with pollution control laws in your area, check out each construction site as 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.

While you should not hesitate to report exposed construction site soil to an enforcement agency, you may find that little action results. Few localities fully enforce Section 2.2.14, of the federal construction site erosion control law. This federal requirement has become part of many state and local laws.

Instead, it has proven far more effective to provide public agencies with the public support and motivation needed to fully enforce the law. This is best done by holding agency officials accountable in a very public way, but couching criticism in words of support rather than recrimination. The Greater Baltimore Survey provides an excellent example. The Survey provided local governments with the public support needed to increase inspections which then lead to a 61% rise in compliance! For further background on this topic visit the Construction Sites section of the CEDS  publications webpage.

Trash & Litter

A large portion of the trash that ends up along neighborhood waters originates at poorly managed dumpsters. To see if this may be the source of trash along waters you cherish take a look at dumpsters behind nearby businesses, apartment complexes, schools and other buildings. Are lids closed? If not then paper, plastic and other trash may litter the surrounding area on windy days. Furthermore, open dumpster lids allows rain to mix with trash forming a toxic brew which can then flow to nearby waters. Fortunately, dumpster-owner education efforts have proven successful in improving good practices and reducing litter as well as pollution. To learn more click on Dumpsters & Water Pollution.

In Channel Stream Restoration

Stream and wetland restoration projects have come to be a poplar way of creating the impression that aquatic resource quality is being improved. These projects are highly visible making them poplar with elected officials and others.

If a stream drains a lightly developed watershed then the project can bring about an improvement. In most suburban-urban areas the scouring effects of large volumes of flood waters will cause severe damage to instream restoration practices unless watershed impervious surface runoff is curtailed with highly-effective BMPs. This is part of the reason why a 2012 study documented a disturbing rate of instream restoration project restoration failure


Making a stream, river, lake or tidal waterway more Child Safe & Friendly is no small undertaking. It is doable though, particularly if you can show elected officials that many of your neighbors support the effort. And the best way to do this is by forming a Neighborhood Waters Alliance consisting of you and other area residents.

To begin forward the Making Neighborhood Waters More Child Safe & Friendly factsheet to those who live on your street followed up with a phone call, text, email or a knock on their door. The next step could be a visit to your neighborhood waters to check out quality using the methods described in the heading above: Are Your Neighborhood Water Child Safe & Friendly?

If a number of your neighbors have interest in installing Rain Barrels, Rain Gardens or planting trees then contact local or state environmental agencies about the availability of technical and financial assistance. Also, consider making a local elected official your first contact. A town commissioner or county council member may prove to be a strong supporter and advocate for your effort. You’ll also need their support for the more challenging tasks of improving stormwater BMP maintenance, increasing construction site erosion control, or curtailing sewer releases.

If you wish CEDS would be delighted to participate in a no-cost conference call or online meeting with you and your neighbors. This could be at an initial gathering of folks in your home or at a meeting hall. We can then have additional discussions as your effort grows. Just contact CEDS president Richard Klein a call at 410-654-3021 or to set something up.