Ahh, the smell of Spring after an April rain shower. Clean and fresh. The rain washes away the dry and dirty leaving the beauty of a refreshed landscape.
And then I wonder. Where did the rain go that carried away the dry and dirty? And what was so dirty that needed to be cleaned?
The rain runs down the gutter to the storm drain, the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) to be exact. The storm sewer takes rain, snowmelt, and anything that floats down the gutter to the North Platte River. This is often confused with the Sanitary Sewer which takes our home’s wastewater from the shower, laundry, dishwasher, and toilets to the wastewater treatment plant.
The two sewer systems are separate and function differently. The Sanitary Sewer takes water to be cleaned and treated at the wastewater treatment plant. A constant flow and steady volume of wastewater runs through the plant. First, trash and non-organic materials are screened out and taken to the landfill. In the next step, the raw sewage flows to an aeration basin where organisms are introduced to help decompose the organic material. Then the wastewater flows into a clarifier, where those organisms are settled out of the water, producing a sludge which can be composted and reused. The water is then disinfected using ultraviolet radiation and returned in clean condition to the North Platte River.
The storm drainage system in Scottsbluff and Gering runs straight to the North Platte River; it is not cleaned or treated. Unlike wastewater, stormwater runoff is unpredictable and varies in volume, making it infeasible to treat with the same process as waste water. When rain, snowmelt, or the occasional sprinkler causes water to run down the gutter, it can pick up pollutants such as bacteria from pet waste, leaking oil and other fluids from our vehicles, heavy metals from brake pads, and phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers. The stormwater and its pollutants deposits directly into our waterways. This type of pollution is called non-point source (NPS) pollution, since there’s no specific source, and it is the largest cause of impaired waterways in the United States.
As an example of this, the nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer are good for plants, in proper amounts. But consider what happens when the “little bit” that runs off the lawn to join the other “little bits” already in the storm sewer, North Platte River, Missouri River, and Mississippi River. The excess nitrogen, phosphorus and other fertilizer nutrients in the water lead to large blooms of algae. When the algae die and decompose, this dramatically reduces the amount of oxygen in the water creating hypoxic zones, more commonly called “dead zones,” in which organisms cannot survive. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone, where “little bits” of fertilizer run-off from across the country end up, was estimated to be 5,840 square miles in 2013, roughly the land size of Nebraska’s largest county, Cherry County. 
Stormwater pollution is difficult to treat, but there are many easy to help prevent it. The main goal is to let only rain go down the drain. Pick up pet waste, throw litter in the trash can, keep the car in good condition by checking for leaks and regular maintenance, fertilize according to the directions and sweep any extra back onto the yard. The list of suggestions is long the list of benefits even longer.
It all begins by being aware of stormwater – where it goes, what it picks up, and the simple ways to help keep it clean. So savor the scent of Spring after an April shower and the knowledge of how to help keep our waterways just as clean and fresh.
Only Rain Down the Drain: Simple Ways to Help Prevent Stormwater Pollution
Put litter in the garbage
Pick up pet waste and put it in the trash or flush it.
Wash your car on the lawn or in a commercial car wash
Monitor, fix Leaks, and clean spills properly
Maintain vehicle regularly
Recycle used motor oil
Properly dispose of hazardous household chemicals
Use non-toxic household products
Sweep the driveway or sidewalk instead of hosing it down
Redirect downspouts to run onto the yard instead of a sidewalk or driveway
Harvest rain water
Fertilizer and pesticides
Apply according to directions
Sweep any extra back onto the lawn
Use natural fertilizers and pesticides
Keep your grass clippings on the lawn
Compost yard waste
Sweep up leaves and dispose in yard waste containers
Water the lawn, not the sidewalk
Vegetate Bare Spots
Use de-icers sparingly
Plant “the right plant in the right place”
Plant a rain garden
Use native or well-adapted plants