Clean streets, clean water

A recent article in The Philadelphia Inquirer covered the impact of plastics pollution – when physical trash ends up in our waterways and washes ashore – in the Delaware River. The article pointed to the fact that the source of the pollution is likely tied to storm events happening upstream. In the litter-prone neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Camden, residents can appreciate how a healthy summer rain cleans off the streets and sidewalks and gives the neighborhood a welcome rinse. What residents may appreciate far less is what happens to all the street litter and to other less visible pollutants that coat the surfaces of a working city.

In rinsing off our streets, roofs, and sidewalks, a good rain will pick up a heavy load of plastic water bottles, food wrappers, and other litter, but also pet waste, motor oil from leaking engines, and all manner of soot and chemicals from car exhaust and other sources. When it rains as little as an inch, and sometimes even less, the sewer systems that run underneath Philadelphia and Camden can be overwhelmed by all the added stormwater flooding in through thousands of storm drain inlets. This toxic load mixes with the sewage already in the system (that’s right, the stuff sent from our 2 million+ toilets) and can end up overflowing, untreated, into the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. Each year, Camden and Philadelphia experience dozens of overflow events from almost 200 different overflow release points after it rains, dumping filthy stormwater mixed with raw sewage directly into our rivers and streams. 

 

Philadelphia and Camden are both doing remarkable things to reduce the impact of this pollution, particularly through the use of “green stormwater infrastructure” practices like rain gardens and green roofs that capture and filter millions of gallons of runoff each year while beautifying our neighborhoods and creating new jobs to install and maintain them. But with all the innovation happening to capture and clean this stormwater pollution, it helps to remind ourselves of the time-tested adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. By Earth Day next week tens of thousands of volunteers from across the region will have participated in a neighborhood clean-up event as part of the Philly Spring Cleanup, Schuylkill Scrub, or any number of other community organized and business supported events. If we can keep the pollution off our streets, we can keep it out of our rivers and streams.