Your Watershed column: With the rain comes non-point source pollution
Since late May, the NOAA Climate Prediction Center has predicted above average precipitation through the summer. As we get into the middle of July, hopefully these rains will soon begin to materialize in our forecast, wetting up the bone-dry brush in our landscapes to ease wildfire tensions and helping to green up fields and maintain boatable flows. While it will take a lot of rain to really help out these facets of lifestyle and environment, it only takes a single afternoon storm to wash off your lawn and driveway into the stormwater drain, going straight into the river closest to you.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines non-point source pollution as “pollution that is not released through pipes, but rather originates from multiple sources over a relatively large area. Non-point sources include failing septic tanks, improper animal-keeping practices, forestry practices, and urban and rural runoff.” Any oil spilled from your driveway oil change or excess fertilizers applied to your lawn get to bypass the treatment system, running off with the sudden rains to the nearest stormwater drain. In Garfield County, that stormwater drain is almost certainly piped directly into the Colorado River, and in some places the Roaring Fork.
If you don’t live near any stormwater drains, perhaps the stormwater runoff makes it only so far until it seeps into dry ground. But pollutants won’t lie dormant there forever. Groundwater hydrology and future precipitation will take them to your backyard body of water or down through the geologic layers to meet up with the rest of the groundwater, from which private wells pull water.
The EPA lists that some non-point sources include: excess fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, oil, grease, and toxic chemicals, sediment from improperly managed construction sites, and bacteria and nutrients from livestock or pet waste and leaking septic systems. States report that non-point source pollution is the leading cause of water quality problems in the U.S., as opposed to the point source pollution that could potentially be coming from a concentrated animal feed operation or from a treatment plant or industrial facility outlet.
Grizzly and No Name creeks are the primary sources of drinking water for Glenwood Springs. Rifle, Silt and DeBeque pull drinking water from the Colorado. New Castle uses the Colorado and East Elk Creek, Parachute uses a series of wells and the Colorado, and Battlement Mesa uses Monument Creek and the Colorado. While our drinking water hits a treatment plant before it reaches our taps, it’s cheaper and easier to prevent pollutants from ever entering our waterways to begin with. Then they wouldn’t end up in places where water isn’t treated, such as the irrigation water used on our crops, in riparian ecosystems used by a diverse array of flora and fauna, or in private wells.
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Municipalities publish a drinking water quality report annually so you can know where your town’s drinking water quality stands. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is in charge of maintaining a list of pollutant-impaired waterways so the responsible parties can be alerted when excessive levels are being neared or are surpassed. These initiatives, however, aren’t a catch-all for pollutants, and the cheapest and easiest way to help keep our water clean is to pick up after your pet, maintain and prevent leaks from your vehicle, apply lawn fertilizer responsibly or not at all, and dispose of chemicals properly.
The old adage in environmental remediation is “the solution to pollution is dilution.” While catchy, it has since been recognized that our species can often out-pollute nature’s ability to dilute. This is especially true this year, with the Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers at around a quarter of their average flows: there isn’t enough water to dilute much pollution at all.
Jon Nicolodi writes a monthly column for the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which works to evaluate, protect and enhance the health of the Middle Colorado River Watershed through the cooperative effort of watershed stakeholders. To learn more, go to http://www.midcowatershed.org. You can also find the Council on Facebook at http://facebook.com/midcowatershed.
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Ivan Jackson joined LIFT-UP as its new executive director in August.