Stormwater Detective

Minnesota Conservation Corps volunteers stencil a storm drain near the St. Croix River with the message "Do not dump, drains to the river."
Minnesota Conservation Corps volunteers stencil a storm drain near the St. Croix River with the message “Do not dump, drains to the river.”

My husband gets all the attention when we meet new people. His job as a forensic electrical engineer has him traversing attic beams, sifting through fire debris and kicking down doors in burnt up homes in a quest to discover the causes of fires. People’s eyes grow wide as they ask him if his job is a real-life version of the hit TV show CSI. He’ll nod and smile sagely, conveniently leaving out the part about the long monotonous drives to small Midwestern cities, the all-too frequent pig barn fires, and the hours spent shivering in the cold while investigating a fire in some arctic outpost in North Dakota.

In comparison, a job in water resources management doesn’t sound very intriguing.

“So what do you do for a living Angie?”

“I’m a stormwater educator.”

“That’s really, umm, interest…zzzzzzz.”

Well, I am here to set the record straight that the world of stormwater management can be seedy and sordid indeed. Take illicit discharge detection and elimination as an example. I’m sure you have no idea what that phrase means, but it sure sounds scandalous doesn’t it?

When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, it did not specifically address runoff pollution from city streets, commonly known as stormwater runoff.  Overtime, however, research showed that the water emptying out of storm pipes into rivers, lakes and streams was filled with many contaminants. Because these pipes collect rain and melting snow from streets and parking lots, the water is often filled with a gruesome mix of litter, dirt, grass, leaves, fine particles from car exhaust, road salt, lawn chemicals, and even dog poop. Even worse, some people intentionally pour toxic chemicals into storm drains near their homes, mistakenly believing these pipes flow to treatment facilities instead of straight to the river. Not too long ago, it was common for people to dump used engine oil into storm drains, instead of taking the oil to an auto repair store or their County Environmental Center. Even now, contractors frequently empty dirty wash water from carpet cleaning or wash cement off of tools straight into storm drains that connect directly to the lakes and rivers we swim in and fish from. These are the illegal (ie. illicit) discharges.

In 1987, congress passed a major update to the Clean Water Act that required cities with storm sewer systems to begin tracking, reporting on, and reducing stormwater runoff pollution. As a result, hundreds of communities and public entities in Minnesota now have stormwater permits, regulated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Identifying and eliminating illicit discharges to storm drains is one of the requirements of these permits.

Because of the stormwater permit system, city staff get to become detectives. If they see soapy water coming out of a storm sewer outlet into a city lake, for example, it is up to the public works department to trace backwards and try to determine where the water is coming from. Is someone washing a car in a driveway up the road? Did a cleaning crew recently dump out wash water into the street? Sometimes, the answers to these questions are surprising. For example, when the City of Woodbury began investigating why water was coming out of some of their pipes even when it wasn’t raining, they discovered that overly irrigated lawns seeping down into buried storm pipes were often the culprit. Equally surprising, other cities have found examples of homes and businesses that have sinks and indoor drains connected to the storm sewer system instead of the sanitary sewer system.

At the end of the day, managing a municipal stormwater system will never be a high profile job, even though the work is vitally important to protecting the lakes and rivers we love. However, I have a feeling city staff might get more respect at cocktail parties if they started introducing themselves as stormwater detectives.