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San Clemente Journal

Fighting Ocean Pollution - Only Rain Down the Storm Drain

May 01, 2011 09:33PM ● By Brian O

by Jamie Brinkman

Have you ever wondered where the water that trickles down our driveways and into the streets actually goes? For those of you who haven’t thought about it, or just don’t know, most of the water sprayed off our driveways goes straight into the ocean without any kind of cleaning or filtering. And when it rains - which we seem to be very familiar with after this past December - anything on the street gets swept into the storm drains and dumped right into our waters. Are we doing enough here in San Clemente to keep our waters clean? In a town where the ocean is our playground, I decided to investigate. The City of San Clemente really does a lot to keep our water clean and whether you know it or not, so do you.

While recently paying bills with my husband, I accidentally paid our bill twice. In my attempt to find the contact information for the water department, I came across a part of the bill I had never noticed - a small fee ($8.02 to be exact) labeled “clean ocean fee” and a $4.74 fee labeled “storm drain”. Every month a small part of our water bill, via these fees, is used towards supporting the City’s Urban Runoff Management/Clean Ocean Program. The Clean Ocean Program’s primary goal is to inform community residents and businesses about the causes and effects of storm water and urban runoff pollution. The URM/COP also maintains the storm drains, and has stenciled signs above most of them reading No Dumping. Drains to Trestles, accompanied by a picture of a dolphin and a surfer, as a reminder of where this water goes. By illuminating the ways in which we contribute to the problem and the consequences of our own actions, it is the hope that the program will gradually reduce watershed pollution in San Clemente.

Educational efforts focus on providing San Clemente residents useful information that will enable individuals in the community to change behaviors and current practices that contribute to pollution. For instance, on the water quality website you can find a wealth of information about how the storm drain system works and how it differs from the sewer system, how pollutants are released into storm drains, how storm and urban runoff impacts our local water and ecosystems, and what the best management practices are for controlling it. This same program reaches out to local schools and businesses as well. The City has also put a ban on all Styrofoam products for city events and businesses and encourages residents to refrain from using these products as Styrofoam is one of the top debris found on our beaches. And while I know that most of us think we’ve heard “Don’t litter” a thousand times, and we understand the concepts, however, there is a lot more to pollution than just litter.

Here is a little summary of what we all probably know, yet if asked to explain, would probably stare blankly (and yes, I was in this group). There is a difference between “urban runoff and storm water runoff”. Storm water runoff occurs during rains, and the water runs off paved surfaces or rooftops. To prevent flooding, the excess water is carried down reservoirs, through the storm drain system, out to local creeks and canyons, eventually being dumped into the ocean. Therefore anything in the street such as trash, oil, pesticides or fertilizer (which often includes feces) is swept swiftly into the ocean with a good rain. A car that leaks oil 20 miles inland can still pollute our ocean with a strong enough storm. “Urban runoff”, different from storm water, is generated by daily human activities, such as irrigating landscaped areas, hosing down hardscapes, and cleaning machines outdoors. Water from these activities carries a concoction of chemicals, debris, sediment and other pollutants to the ocean via the same storm drain system. Unlike our sewer system (where all of our water waste from homes and businesses go) which is treated, filtered, chlorinated, and then dumped over four miles out to sea, storm water goes into the ocean carrying with it everything that is picked up along the way.

“The pollutants cause a great imbalance in our ecosystem,” says biologist and water quality expert, Jeff Brinkman, “and can cause loss of sensitive species.” For instance, years ago, the pesticide DDT was being used on farms and started to pollute our water, and then the fish, and eventually resulted in a near extinction of the brown pelican population which ate the fish. They have since recovered.

The best way to control what goes into our oceans is by the simple measures we take every day to reduce the crud that goes into these drains. So here’s the lowdown - if you wash your car and do it quickly with minimal soap, you’re good to go. Any water containing anything but mild soap probably shouldn’t get washed into the street. Any water used to hose down an oil-stained driveway; water used to clean machinery; water with chemicals in it; or water with anything else in it; should be taken to the water quality center and appropriately disposed of. The city of San Clemente provides all residents with a dumping area for waste water so visit for more details. All of our storm drains remind us via the image of a dolphin and the simple statement “Flows to ocean” that storm drains are for clean rain water only. So now it’s our turn – it’s time for all of us to revaluate how we use and dispose of our waste water in order to keep the oceans we play in clean for us and for our children.  b

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