Storm Drains


Last week I was tooling along in my motorcar listening to a well-known Seattle area talk show host. He began to discuss legislation that frowns upon fundraising car washes and sets requirements in place for how to conduct them in an ecologically friendly manner.

I anticipated that he would not like this being mandated at the state level especially because of the potential costs to taxpayers. But then he said something to the effect of, “it doesn’t matter what you put down the storm drains anyway; it all goes to a treatment plant.”

D’oh! I just about drove off the road. Actually, I pulled over in a parking lot and called the radio station. I was concerned about the number of people who might join in an amen chorus without knowing that storm drains actually empty straight into streams, rivers, lakes, and even Puget Sound.

While I probably sounded like a chipmunk on a sugar high auctioning off used nutcrackers, I explained to the host that it is sewers that go to a treatment plant, not storm drains. He countered by saying that some Seattle storm drains are tied in with the sewer. But as far as I know, that’s not the case with most places, and I later learned that only about a third of the lines within the city limits of Seattle are combined like that.

This is something I didn’t know for a long time either, so I don’t blame anyone for not being aware of these facts. This is why you see those salmon stencils on metal grates in parking lots– you don’t want gas, or garbage, or soap going into those because the water’s not treated and runs straight to wildlife habitats. Think about all the sand that was put down on the roads in our recent snow event. That’s why you see government agencies cleaning it up afterwards, so it doesn’t gunk up the pipes and empty out into Lake Washington.

Ultimately, I told the host, maybe it’s time to rethink the traditional fundraising car wash. They can be done at places that recycle the water and there’s even socks you can put down into the storm drains to catch substances that don’t belong in the natural environment. A coworker who heard my hyper chipmunk spiel told me that some schools now sell coupons to car washes rather than conduct these events themselves. An important point I should have mentioned that might have resonated with the host is how much it can cost taxpayers to keep the storm drains and pipes functional. Even routine maintenance has a significant cost.

The more I learn about our infrastructure, the more I’m amazed at how much I took it for granted in years past. I just didn’t know. Now I do, and it’s not radical environmentalism to care about what goes into our local waterways, it’s common sense. You don’t have to believe the gospel of global warming to make reasonable efforts to take care of the place future people, and flora and fauna, will inhabit. After all, the Manufacturer tasked us with being stewards of the earth. That doesn’t mean forcing a lifestyle, philosophy, or political ideology onto others. It’s just a basic rule like “pick up your room, son, so your forgotten bologna sandwich doesn’t sprout five kinds of deadly exotic fungi.”

As a fiscal conservative, I have doubts that the state is the best level of government to mandate this from and that such a bill is the best use of taxpayer money. Clearly we’re in a budget crunch and there are higher priorities. But perhaps this legislation has started a needed dialogue about common sense actions we can take to keep pollution out of the water. Our orcas, for example, have in the past shown to be so full of toxins that they’re each a floating Superfund site. That really makes you wonder what’s in local seafood, although I can’t speak to that.

While I’m on my soapbox, I should mention that keeping the storm drains clear is one reason some government agencies prohibit people from sweeping their yard debris into the street. In storm events, a lot of leaves and tree matter drop, and some people push that out into the street. The problem is that not only can that muck up and slow down the street sweepers, but it can clog up or cover storm drains and cause flooding. Since I’ve learned about this I’ve started checking my local storm drain frequently. I’m amazed at how quickly it can get covered up by tree gunk (and lazy people’s McDonald’s bags).

So you don’t need a certificate verifying that you’ve declared war on plastic bags or have to change political parties to care about the environment. You don’t have to agree with everything that’s been labeled “green” or “environmental” or be a Puritan whose car tires are made from remanufactured vintage cork sandals from Borneo. It’s just helpful to the whole ecosystem when you are cognizant about the end results of the actions you take.

What you do here… ends up there, wherever there is. Around here “there” is the same water you’re choking on when you wipe out waterskiing near the 520 bridge. I’m still learning this. Sometimes the intricacies of recycling plastics are mind-blowing and sometimes I disapprove of taxpayer dollars being spent on green projects when basic government functions are underfunded. Do what you can, though, because every small act contributes to a greater good.

We all gotta live here… our offspring don’t have anywhere else to live until Newt colonizes the moon… and even then I’m sure a few slackers who can’t manage to keep their own McNugget boxes inside the rocketship will inevitably wind up on the first flight.

We can all do something individually regardless of how much we think we should be doing collectively. We don’t have to agree on heated political matters to make a difference and to avoid the creation of mutated asexual carp with five eyes, rock star pipes, and superior intelligence. If they get too smart, they’re going to start throwing their McPlankton wrappers onto the shore.


While I represent myself only on this blog, the City of Seattle has some great information on caring for our waters at

Here is an excerpt from that page:

Where storm drains go

Some people believe that storms drain carry the waste to a sewage treatment for cleanup. Not true! Some drains go directly into the nearest stream or lake or Puget Sound, and so do the hazardous chemicals, pesticides, paints, antifreeze and used motor oil people pour down storm drains every year.

The Seattle Aquarium estimates that more than 2 million gallons of used motor oil ends up in Puget Sound each year. That’s enough to fill a medium-sized tanker! But even small amount of oil can smother fish eggs and developing shellfish in our lakes and streams. Just 1 pint of oil causes a slick the size of 2 football fields.


©2012 H. Hiatt/ All articles/posts on this blog are copyrighted original material that may not be reproduced in part or whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from H. Hiatt/

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