Every time it rains, stormwater rushing across pavement picks up oils, chemicals, and other pollutants that are eventually deposited into our streams and rivers.
Unlike point-source pollution -- the waste that comes, for example, from a pipe -- non-point pollution's threat to surface water and groundwater is less well known but just as real. Fortunately, through activism and education this issue is being brought to the attention of government regulators and the public.
A recent Sierra Club report examining industries along one Memphis waterway raises the question: Do local governmental environmental agencies have the resources to enforce the laws protecting our water supply?
Located along Cypress Creek in North Memphis are chemical companies, junkyards, auto-repair businesses, homes, and Cypress Middle School, each making its own contribution to the waterway.
According to federal regulations, industrial sites must have permits requiring stormwater testing. But an examination of Cypress Creek's industrial neighbors by a local environmental-protection organization found these regulations aren't always being followed or enforced.
"There are all these stormwater-pollution regulations on the books, but state environmental agencies don't have the manpower or will to enforce them," says James Baker, a Sierra Club member.
Recently retired from the city of Memphis as a testing expert, Baker is using his experience to show how some companies aren't doing what's required to protect our water.
By searching public water-quality records, Baker found five out of the 15 industries sending stormwater into Cypress Creek had no permit and another's was not up-to-date. He also found several of these industries were discharging up to nine times the levels of pollutants allowed by law.
As manager of the Division of Water Pollution Control for the Tennessee Division of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), Terry Templeton wants the public to know stormwater pollution is just one aspect of a complex and multilayered regulatory system.
Along with issuing permits, doing pollution testing, and following up on complaints, his department is responsible for overseeing stormwater regulations for potentially hundreds of industrial facilities and 400 active construction sites in three Tennessee counties.
"We are mainly a complaint-driven department," Templeton says. "If the public sees a property that's a problem, they can call us at 368-7959 and we'll look into it. And if there's a remedy, we'll sure do it."
Industries with on-site pollution that can be potentially carried away by stormwater need a permit. This requires filing the appropriate paperwork as well as conducting a lab test every year and a visual test every quarter, Templeton says.
TDEC has done mass mailings to inform industries of stormwater requirements, but Templeton says his office doesn't have the manpower to check on every company. Representatives from TDEC will be sent to the industries out of compliance along Cypress Creek for an inspection and to inform them of their lawful stormwater responsibilities, Templeton says. Companies that don't meet requirements can be levied a fine of $2,500.
Baker doesn't blame local TDEC officials for not being as vigilant as they could be. He knows from experience how overworked municipal employees can be. That's why, he says, it's important for citizens and groups like the Sierra Club to help keep them informed.
"We should have citizens trained in water-testing procedures adopt a site to make sure these industries are doing what they are supposed to do," Baker says. "It's up to the public to show TDEC that these issues are important and need to be addressed."
Stormwater pollution isn't just a problem in Cypress Creek. Larry Smith, executive director of the Wolf River Conservancy, says he has seen the Wolf run green and white due to stormwater contamination.
"Pipe discharges were addressed first, and non-point pollution is the second half of the Clean Water Act," Smith says. "Its importance depends on how dirty we are willing to accept our water being when we know surface water is connected to our aquifer."
Smith says groundwater on the upper Wolf River east of Memphis is almost 100 percent connected to the surface water. Recent studies have shown that the clay layer that supposedly protects our aquifers from contamination is permeable along rivers and that some surface water feeds directly into the aquifer.
Though most Memphians don't realize it, Smith says, our groundwater has been contaminated through the clay layer in three places: the Carrier Air Conditioning plant near Collierville, the landfill near Shelby Farms, and the Pine Hills Golf Course in South Memphis.
Tom Lawrence, manager of the stormwater program for the city of Memphis, says there are some basic things citizens and companies can do to reduce stormwater pollution. These include not dumping trash, leaves, grass clippings, or pollutants into storm drains. Yard waste clogs drains, and contaminants flow unfiltered into streams and rivers. Companies should drain oil from unused engines, cover machine parts, and hire a consultant to assess the best way to reduce stormwater pollution.
Soil is the number-one pollutant in Tennessee, so if anyone witnesses dirt washing off a construction site, they should call Lawrence's office at 576-6721. Construction sites that don't use silt fences and best-management practices can clog streams, killing aquatic life.
"We really want to get the number out there," Lawrence says. "We don't get too many calls, and we want the public to know to call us if they see any kind of problem." n
This spring will bring the second phase of state stormwater legislation that requires smaller cities like Bartlett and Germantown to have stormwater programs. Lawrence says their cooperation will help educate the public and reduce suburban pollution.
"Who's got the best water in the country?," Gwendolyn Shorter asks her Cypress Middle School students in a classroom looking out over Cypress Creek.
"Memphis!" they shout in unison. And through the Storm Water Environmental Education Program they, along with two other schools, are learning how they can prevent pollution and protect our future water supply.
The children learn about the water cycle and how valuable and limited a resource good drinking water really is. Project manager Lora Gibbons says educating the children can assure they establish good habits early and that they, in turn, educate others in the community.
It's been 30 years since the Clean Water Act was passed and still 40 percent of assessed surfaced water in the United States is unsafe for
fishing, swimming, or supporting aquatic life. In some places clean water is in short supply, forcing some American communities to process sewage for drinking.
Detailing his plans to increase water-quality awareness, Baker extends a bottle filled with Memphis aquifer water to the dim winter sunlight. "Water is a basic right," he says. "Three times the number of people die each day from bad drinking water than died from the 9/11 attacks. We,ve got to protect what we've got.".
To report potential water quality violations call TDEC at 368-7959, or the stormwater program of the city of Memphis at 576-6721.