Action 152. Put a LID on it.

Last weekend I spent all day at a storm water curriculum teacher training workshop. What, that’s not the most exciting thing you’ve ever heard?? OK fine, but bear with me, because this is  important and climate-related.

Storm water is a big problem here in Puget Sound. Rain that hits our streets and buildings picks up a chemical cocktail of oils, grease, dirt, metals, plastics, and various debris. All this pollution heads to our gutters and into storm drains. And just about none of it is treated before it heads straight into Puget Sound. Its estimated that about 3/4 of all the pollution in Puget Sound can be traced back to stormwater,  and it’s estimated that somewhere between 20 and 90 million pounds of toxic chemicals enter Puget Sound EVERY YEAR through stormwater.

If that doesn’t sound gross enough, visualize it with Laura James’ amazing time lapse footage of a stormwater plume from a stormwater outfall in Puget Sound. YUCK.

As if these numbers weren’t bad enough, climate change has the potential to make them worse. That’s because predictive modeling for our region suggests that rain events are going to get more severe under climate change– which puts more power behind moving pollutants from city surfaces quickly into the Sound. Combine that with our increasing rates of population growth, infrastructure, and road and facility building and, well, you can see where we are headed, and it’s not good news for the health of our waters.

To add another layer of complexity to this already difficult issue, storm water is particularly tricky because it is a non-point-source of pollution. Unlike the pollution that comes out of a factory pipe, non-point-source pollution is just that- not from any particular point,  diffuse and everywhere. Therefore, addressing it takes a lot of creativity and a lot of effort spread across a large region to meet stormwater issues where they originate and put a LID on it.

I don’t mean a literal lid. By LID, I mean Low Impact Development: a term that broadly refers to a whole suite of engineered solutions that all have at their core a common goal: to slow storm water down and allow it to re-infiltrate, reducing the volume of stormwater and the amount of pollutants that run off into the sound. LID can take many different forms: it can be as simple as a curb cut that lets stormwater run into a grassy swale so the plants can trap some of the sediment and chemicals and take up the water; or as complex as a highly engineered and carefully crafted rain garden with amended soils and plants specifically designed to handle large amounts of stormwater. LID can be placed on streets, parking lots, roofs or walls and can be scaled up or scaled down as needed. Plus, as you can see in the links in this paragraph, green or LID infrastructure can be attractive and enhance the aesthetics and even increase property values of buildings or neighborhoods if done and maintained correctly.

Fortunately, our local governments and institutions are recognizing how vital LID is to the future of managing storm water and the health of our Sound. The City of Seattle is a leader in LID infrastructure. And our federal and state construction permit systems are starting to increasingly require LID as part of stormwater management, which is driving a lot of these governmental efforts and in turn improving how stormwater is handled in new development. However, because storm water is everywhere, and because older development retrofits may be slower and more expensive, it is important to diffuse the information and technical expertise far and wide so that the public has a better understanding of the impacts of storm water and how we  all play a role in solving this problem.

That’s where the teacher training comes in. The Pacific Education Institute offers free teacher training workshops on many subjects, including an amazing curriculum all about storm water (the elementary and secondary curricula are free and available for download here) that teaches students about this issue and engages them in hands-on activities that help them research and problem-solve storm water issues at their school and in their neighborhoods. My colleague and I went to check it out to see if it’s something we can integrate into our district’s elementary curriculum. And we also were able to check out the incredible work being done on stormwater engineering and low impact development at Washington State University’s Stormwater Center in Puyallup, where the workshop was held. This campus is working on a whole range of LID research, including comparing and contrasting stormwater runoff from different kinds of pervious paving; comparing water quality runoff from roofing materials; and investigating how different soil mixes and vegetation influence water quality and treatment in raingardens. They also have researchers studying the toxic effects of stormwater on salmonids, with some really dramatic and concerning results coming to light about the lethality of stormwater on juvenile salmon.

I’m really looking forward to bringing back the ideas and curriculum we learned about to our students. There are many exciting things about this subject: opportunities to learn about principles of biology and engineering, as well as a real opportunities to empower students to make a difference through investigating stormwater issues at their school and at home. Just like climate change, this is an issue that is going to take all of us working from many different angles. Together, we can put a LID on it.

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