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Sea Grant Helps with Trashy Problem

Just to set the record straight about stormwater,

  • Storm drains (a.k.a. catch basins) are designed only for rain and snow melt (not trash, leaves, or oil).
  • Whatever goes down a storm drain goes into a natural waterway untreated.
  • The University of Minnesota Duluth does not hire people to pick up litter.
  • Fish don’t smoke, purchase candy bars, sip soda, or swill beer.

Fish are not responsible for the 1,866 cigarette butts, 88 food wrappers, and 45 beverage containers that Minnesota Sea Grant staff, family and friends picked up on a half-mile stretch of Lake Superior shoreline. These trash items, along with thousands of other bits of rubbish, were removed from Lake Superior’s edge as part of The Ocean Conservancy’s 2005 International Coastal Cleanup, which Minnesota Sea Grant helped sponsor. Reflective of misconceptions and sloppy habits, this garbage may be waterborne but it’s not water born.

UMD's water garden dries out before the next storm

UMD's rain garden dries out before the next storm.

“People drop, lose, or throw things on the ground, not realizing that the next rain can carry the litter into the nearest waterbody,” said Jesse Schomberg, Minnesota Sea Grant’s coastal communities educator. “Here in Duluth, trash can reach Lake Superior pretty quickly once it gets into a storm drain.”

In fact, rain on the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) campus can become part of Lake Superior within 5 minutes, racing through culverts and down Oregon Creek.

Increasingly, communities are dedicating time and resources towards stormwater education and management. Along with four other urban areas in Minnesota and many around the country, Duluth is responding to the mandates of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System as part of the federal Clean Water Act. The act stresses that public education and participation are fundamental to managing stormwater, making institutions like Minnesota Sea Grant and UMD natural partners.

One recent stormwater endeavor united Sea Grant, UMD’s Facilities Management Department, and an eco-conscious undergraduate to curtail campus litter. Initiated by Nicole Hynum, the internship allowed her to devote more time to stormwater causes.

“The assumptions people have about litter and stormwater can be shocking,” said Hynum, who worked through a subcommittee of UMD’s Storm Water Steering Committee to spearhead the campus-wide anti-litter campaign. A survey of UMD students revealed that:

  • Plastic and glass drink bottles, fast food containers, and cigarette butts are the most common types of litter.
  • Students who littered did so mainly because they couldn’t find receptacles.
  • Some students thought that UMD hires staff specifically to clean up trash.
  • Almost 90 percent of respondents had participated in a volunteer cleanup project.

UMD officials intend to respond by installing more waste receptacles, educating incoming students about trash and stormwater, and hanging anti-litter posters.

Ways to be a stormwater steward:

  • Adopt a storm drain.
  • Build and landscape with permeable surfaces where possible.
  • Wash cars where the soap and water will run onto grass.
  • Create and maintain rain gardens.
  • Participate in a beach sweep.
  • Pick up litter, yard clippings, and pet waste.
  • Share information about litter and stormwater.
  • Use rain barrels to collect roof runoff for watering plants.

Curtailing litter is part of a comprehensive UMD stormwater plan that tapped Sea Grant expertise. Another aspect of the plan – a large rain garden – is probably more noticeable to the average passerby. To reduce the pace and heat of rainwater fleeing from campus into Oregon Creek, facilities management staff turned 1/3 of an acre into a rain garden. Planted with 75 species (3,800 hardy native and cultivated plants), the depression cradles up to 60,500 gallons of water running off a 2.5-acre paved parking lot. Filtering, evaporating, and learning happen here. The garden is an educational showpiece not only for UMD but also for the City of Duluth.

This fall, Duluth and the South St. Louis Soil and Water Conservation District armed volunteers with complementary rakes and bags and asked them to remove garbage and debris from storm drains through an Adopt a Storm Drain initiative, hoping that heightened awareness will encourage other residents to think about stormwater.

During a comparable effort to prevent the sand broadcast over icy winter roads from polluting streams and Lake Superior, last spring Duluthians collected enough sand to fill several dump trucks. The city encourages people to collect the remnants of winter road care material before it washes from their street; approximately 100 truck loads of grit and erosion material – stuff that could fill low spots in yards or provide traction next winter – accumulates around the mouths of Miller and Coffee Creeks, which are adjacent to each other and empty into the Duluth-Superior Harbor.

“Whatever goes into our streets and our storm drains goes into our streams and Lake Superior,” reiterates Schomberg. He and other Sea Grant staff, past and present, have contributed tirelessly to effective stormwater management through both professional endeavors and personal choices. Several Minnesota Sea Grant staff also serve on the Regional Stormwater Protection Team, a collaboration of governments and groups that have rallied to provide coordinated educational programs and technical assistance for stormwater pollution prevention. (For more information, see “Sea Grant Helps Efforts to Reduce Stormwater Runoff”.)


By Sharon Moen
December 2005

Return to December 2005 Seiche



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