Rain, runoff, and our part in the water cycle

As of 6:30 this morning, I’ve had more than two inches of rain over the last nine days in my CoCoRaHS gauge. My front yard has become a pond – a normal occurrence during wet periods as I’ve learned over the exceedingly rainy past year. Part of my little triangular plot of land backs up to a farm field, which sits a couple feet higher than mine. Excess water from the field creates miniature waterfalls across the property line and floods my yard. Because of a slight hill in advance of the drainage ditch in the front yard, the water has no place to go. So, it sits. Sometimes for days. I joke with my friends that I’m going to teach my black cat to snorkel out there.

rain report

The author’s rain gauge report for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) showing her daily rain totals for the last 9 days.

When I watch the little rivers of runoff coming down from the field, I wonder what nutrients or pollutants are coming with it. To be sure, there must at least be fertilizer and possibly pesticides. In a way I’m glad the water stops there and doesn’t run down the ditch and into the closest stream which flows into the closest river, which isn’t far from my house. My front yard is serving as a filter. Sure, it’s a mucky mess to look at after days of rain, but it’s actually serving a higher purpose.

Rain is typically clean when it falls.

We poetically say it washes away the dirt, pollen, and grime of the world, and it does. What most people rarely consider, though, is to where it washes the dirt, pollen, grime and pollutants.

We learned in elementary school that part of the water cycle includes the rainwater draining into streams which run into rivers which lead to the oceans. In a perfect world, by the time the rainwater reaches the ocean, it should be clean again. Unfortunately, our world is rarely perfect.

From cigarette butts discarded from a car window to drink containers dropped by a carefree child, trash ends up on the ground. In urban areas, when the rain comes, the refuse is carried to storm drains. From the storm drains, it makes its way into streams – possibly even streams nobody remembers exist – and from the streams into the rivers, and so on.

Rocks, soil, and plants along the water’s route help to filter out small pollutants including fertilizer and pesticides caught in the runoff. Some of the larger trash may end up on the shoreline. Still, plenty continues to float downstream.

Beyond aesthetics, one huge reason to not litter – and even to pick up litter that isn’t yours – is to protect our water.

It’s too easy to wave off someone else’s trash as disgusting without doing anything about it. After all, it’s not ours. Why should we clean up after someone else? I agree that we shouldn’t have to. Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. Pollution happens, and we can’t just ignore it because we didn’t have a hand in causing it.

So, what can we do?

On my property, I pick up the trash people lazily throw out of their car windows. (Who said living in the country guaranteed a clean environment?) When I visit the beach, I take two plastic bags on my morning walks: one for special seashells and one for trash. Sadly, the seashell bag usually ends up full of trash, too. It’s not my trash and it’s not my beach, but it is my planet. I take ownership.

As we head toward spring, local community volunteer and government organizations will start posting stream clean-up dates. If you want to make a difference in just a few hours, pick a date (or multiple dates) and join the effort. It’s easy. I’ve done it. You meet new people and get some exercise in the process of helping to divert garbage from our water supply.

You could even take it a step further and form a group to adopt a stream within the city of Raleigh. If you’re not in the Raleigh area, check with your local government. It may have a similar program. The state of North Carolina also has a program called NC Stream Watch. Its website explains ways to get involved including trash pickup, water source tracking, and submitting photos of the waterway.

Grab some friends or make new ones, set a good example for the children in your life, and get involved.

It’s your world. Take ownership!