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Stormwater runoff: A flood of crud

We’re still dealing with landslides and flooding from the heavy rains brought by last week’s Pineapple Express storms. But the downpour also washed a flood of gunk and junk off of the region’s streets, sidewalks and parking lots, into more than 4,500 storm drains and right into Puget Sound.

Storm drains usually empty underwater, so nobody sees the flood of crud that pours into rivers and bays across the region.

Well, almost no one ...

Laura James is a long-time scuba diver who lives in Seattle. James and a couple of buddies took video cameras down to where one West Seattle storm drain empties into Elliot Bay. Take a look …

James says the black plume is kind of scary for a diver, because you don’t know what kind of nasty stuff is in it. She says it looked so solid one of her diving buddies thought it was a piling until he got right up to it.

Then he was like … "AGH!" And he zoomed around and hid behind me. He said, “I don’t wanna get close to that!”

James showed me some other shots that showed everything from pop cans to cigarette buts to a condom wrapper covering the sea floor near the outfall.

This isn’t exactly a surprise

Researchers say the biggest source of pollution in Puget Sound is no longer factories dumping toxic nasties into the water. Decades of clean water laws have reduced industrial pollution. 

Now, Public Enemy #1 is the contaminants that wash into the sound from our farms, our construction sites, our lawns – and our roadways.

Dr. Nat Scholz is a federal researcher at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. He says storm water is a conduit for a wide variety of contaminants to get into the water, including:

  • Oil, grease and heavy metals such as copper than come from cars and trucks.
  • Household chemicals, including pesticides.
  • Nutrients such as nitrogen from fertilizers.
  • Bacteria, such as fecal coliform from pet waste

What does all this stuff do once it gets in the water?

Scholz says that’s the focus of a lot of research, because of the immense complexity of sorting out all the contaminants and what their impact is to the environment and to wildlife.

“We’ve done a large body of research showing that copper is toxic to the salmon nose, and low-level exposures to copper affect a salmon’s ability to smell, and to detect and avoid predators.”

Scholz also says studies show petroleum compounds damage the hearts of fish larvae and that pesticides affect the nervous systems of fish.

Liam Moriarty started with KPLU in 1996 as our freelance correspondent in the San Juan Islands. He’s been our full-time Environment Reporter since November, 2006. In between, Liam was News Director at Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Oregon for three years and reported for a variety of radio, print and web news sources in the Northwest. He's covered a wide range of environment issues, from timber, salmon and orcas to oil spills, land use and global warming. Liam is an avid sea kayaker, cyclist and martial artist.