Our clean water challenge is about seeing and doing ordinary things in new ways. At home it starts with seeing where the water goes, then doing simple things to use it, keep it uncontaminated, and soak it into the ground on our own property.
Go to a car wash. When you clean a car in the driveway or street sand, salt, emissions and detergent flow with the washwater into the street drain and to the river, untreated. At a car wash water drains to the wastewater treatment plant where oil, grease, detergent, sand and grime are removed. If you must wash your car at home wash it on your lawn, use biodegradable soap and dispose of leftover water in toilet or sink.
Maintain your vehicle. We’ve all seen an oily sheen on water in streets and parking lots. It comes from small leaks, accumulated residue and fuel overfills from our cars. When a vehicle is maintained, fewer leaks spill onto streets and highways and fewer contaminants enter streams. So when you’re tempted to put off repairs or the six-month maintenance check, think again.
Walk, ride your bike or take the bus. We all know air quality is affected by vehicle emissions. But did you know emissions also affect water quality? Tiny particles emitted from tail pipes settle on roadways, wash into storm sewer systems, then flow into rivers and streams.
Use grass clippings and leaves. Learn how to compost. Turn clippings into rich organic matter that makes everything in your yard grow better. If you don’t have a bagger, mow often and let short cuttings fall to keep moisture in the soil and put nutrients back in the soil for lush growth.
For a healthy lawn enrich the soil instead of using chemicals and weed killers. Test the soil to find out if your lawn needs more nutrients. If soil conditions are poor, enhance the lawn by mulching. A healthy, mulched lawn outcompetes weeds for light, nutrients, and water. To get a soil test in La Crosse County, call UW Extension at 785-9593.
Keep leaves, grass, trash and other waste out of the street. Litter and toxic substances are obviously harmful but soil, sand, leaves and grass clippings also damage streams. They cloud water, reduce depth, alter habitat and prevent spawning for some species. So remember—everything in the street picks up vehicle fluids and exhaust particles as it flows the storm sewer system, where it goes directly to the river.
In some communities, placing leaves or yard waste into the street is a violation of municipal code.
Manage waterfront with a buffer strip of dense, native vegetation. Native plantings filter water and keep pollutants out of streams. They protect the shoreline during high water and storms, create habitat for birds and other native species, and need almost no care once established. Start by simply not mowing near the stream.
Collect rainwater and use it. Install a rain barrel or cistern to collect rainwater for use in your own garden and yard.
Minimize hard surfaces. Concrete, blacktop and other hard surfaces rush large amounts of water off your property to storm sewers and ditches. In fact, 75% more rain water sinks into the ground in a natural area versus a developed area. When you keep it on your property it soaks in clean, instead of picking up oil, grease, fertilizer, bacteria, and exhaust particles on its way to the river. So, look at runoff generated by roofs, pavement & sidewalks and reduce it with well placed shallow basins, natural plantings and where needed, pavement like gravel or bricks that allows water to sink into the ground.
Build a rain garden. Rain gardens are slight depressions in the yard that act as receiving areas for rainwater flowing from downspouts, roof, street or driveway. They capture water and soak it up before it picks up oil, grease, fertilizer, pet waste or other contaminants on its way to the storm drain. Usually they’re filled with native plants that thrive on moisture, but can withstand a dry period, too. They’re easy to build and make a great neighborhood project.
Pick up after your pets. Pet waste is not only unpleasant on your yard or sidewalk, but carries bacteria that cause beach closings in summer. Carry small plastic bags when you walk your dog, and do not throw pet waste in the street drain. At home, pick up pet waste often to keep it from filtering into groundwater.
Don’t use salt on pavement in winter. One teaspoon of salt can contaminate 5 gallons of water forever. Use calcium magnesium acetate (CMA) instead. It is salt-free, less toxic, and is biodegradable. And remember, deicers aren’t for melting away every bit of snow and ice. Use just enough to break ice away from the pavement, then shovel away the slush.
Try on a new perspective. We can have beautiful lawns with less turf grass and applied chemicals. Add areas of diverse native plants that grow in harmony with each other, produce food, and require little watering. Capture rainwater to use, and minimize discharge to storm sewers. Use less water, and save money.