Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Advocates urge new storm drain markers

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The Stormwater Partners Network, an umbrella organization of area watershed stewardship groups, and other area watershed associations are urging Montgomery County to change the way storm drains are marked.

Storm drain markers — small, colorful signs, usually fixed on the sidewalk above a storm drain, that urge residents against dumping to combat water pollution — are currently placed in the county via volunteers. Some volunteers act through their local stewardship groups and others through the county’s ‘‘Keep Montgomery County Beautiful” program, run by the Montgomery County Department of Transportation.

Those who volunteer are provided with decals to affix to storm drains on county roads, excluding municipalities and state roads, according to Tom Pogue, community relations manager for the transportation department. The decals read ‘‘Do Not Pollute,” in English and Spanish, and include a contact phone number and the message ‘‘Drains to Your Creek.”

Advocates, however, want more specific information to be included on the marker — the name of the local creek as well as the larger watershed that would be polluted, according to a letter addressed to County Executive Isiah Leggett signed by nine watershed groups.

‘‘The closer to home that people perceive a problem to be, the more likely they are to take action,” said Diane Cameron, a consultant to the Natural Resources Defense Council and to Audubon Naturalist Society and representative of the Stormwater Partners Network. ‘‘If something seems far away or remote, people aren’t inclined to act — even if they care.”

Burr Gray, of the Friends of the Cabin John Creek Watershed, a group which also signed the letter, agreed. ‘‘If it’s a local stream that everybody knows and is visited all the time, people will pay more attention as to what goes into the drains.”

The groups are urging the county to change the way they mark drains especially after the Friends of Sligo Creek, a watershed group in the Silver Spring area, was recently denied grant money for a storm drain marking project from the Chesapeake Bay Trust because of the existing program through the county, according to the letter.

‘‘It is therefore critical that the storm drain markers provided by the County be as effective as possible: they are the only ones we will likely have,” the letter read.

However, according to Pogue, the markers are kept generic for a reason — simplicity. ‘‘It’s not something we’re planning to do at this point, and the primary reason is we have very limited staff and resources to operate the program,” Pogue said. ‘‘Keeping it generic makes it very simple for us to provide any volunteer with a standard marker.”

Developing different markers for each watershed would also increase costs and confusion in determining which volunteer got which marker, Pogue said. ‘‘We feel it’s a good program that basically accomplishes the educational piece of it — telling people that this is not a sewer, this is a storm drain.”

Activists say storm drain marking is part of an overarching effort to make the public aware of stormwater issues. One important point to drive home, they say, is that water that rushes through the storm drains — often carrying dirt, trash and pollutants — is largely not treated before it ends up in local streams.

According to a recent study conducted by Baltimore area watershed associations about stormwater awareness, one out of six citizens surveyed in the Baltimore area knew for sure that stormwater was not treated before it entered the stream.

Using fertilizer, littering and not cleaning up after pets often have a damaging effect on local streams, as pet waste, pollutants and trash can be washed into a drain during a rainstorm, activists say. According to the study, many participants did not connect these actions with the health of their local stream.

Steve Dryden, of the Friends of Rock Creek, often marks storm drains through his watershed group. He said he felt the county has been lacking when it comes to public education about stormwater, and encouraged the creation of a staff outreach position at the county dedicated to stormwater issues.

‘‘The county has not really funded enough outreach over the past couple of years — they’ve really fallen behind,” Dryden said.

Pogue, however, noted that the county uses county cable television, Web site announcements and the media — along with the drain-marking program — to get out the message about stormwater. ‘‘I think we’re certainly making an impact in public understanding,” Pogue said.