Polluted Runoff

The Gray Funnel of the Chesapeake

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As water flows off of our streets, parking lots, and building rooftops, it picks up all kinds of pollutants like pet waste, sediment, fertilizers, pesticides, oil, and automotive fluids. If it does not evaporate or soak into the ground—nature's "green filter"—and if untreated or poorly treated, the contaminated runoff adversely affects water quality and aquatic life in local streams, the rivers into which they feed, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. As more houses, roads, and shopping centers are built, more of this polluted stormwater or runoff makes its way through gutters and storm drains to the nearest stream.

Urban and suburban polluted runoff is a not only a major source of nitrogen pollution to the Bay, it is the only source that is still increasing. It is one of the major reasons that the Bay remains on EPA's "dirty waters" list and is now subject to the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Though responsible for greater percentages of pollution, agriculture and sewage treatment plants have been making greater progress.

As impervious surfaces channel large quantities of rainwater into streams at high velocity, the runoff wreaks havoc. The flow scours stream banks, destabilizes stream contours and alters depths. It muddies drinking water sources and also carries bacteria, making the treatment and use of such water more expensive.

In the Bay's tributaries, eroded material and dirt from the land become suspended in the water, blanketing aquatic habitat. This sediment keeps sunlight from reaching underwater grasses. As these plants die, the animals that rely on them are imperiled.

And it is not only wildlife that is endangered by stormwater pollution. The state of Maryland, for example, cautions people not to swim in waterways for 48 hours after a heavy rain. Stormwater carrying bacteria has resulted in serious illnesses. In urban and suburban areas where ground surfaces have been hardened and the polluted water has no place to go, local streets and basements often flood, causing repeated and costly damage to homes and businesses.

Better stormwater management is an increasingly necessary—but admittedly expensive—proposition for local governments. CBF is introducing local Bay jurisdictions to a new way of financing green infrastructure for stormwater management, called "impact investment"—and its additional benefits, such as creating local sustainable jobs and more healthy, vibrant communities.

Additional information about stormwater management can be found at the following websites:

The Center for Watershed Protection
Low Impact Development Center
Low Impact Development Urban Design Tools

From Our Blog

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Video

  • Raging Water on the Susquehanna

    This video captures the devastating effects of heavy rains that pummeled Pennsylvania the week of July 23, 2018. These scenes were shot on July 26, the day before the river crested.

  • James River Runoff

    The James River in Richmond overflowed its banks after heavy rain washed huge amounts of dirt and pollutants into the current. Clear, clean water turned the color of chocolate milk. Even days after the storm the surge continues as runoff flows 200 miles downstream from the headwaters.

  • Testing for Polluted Runoff in Pennsylvania

    In the summer of 2016, CBF tested bacteria levels in local Pennsylvania streams after heavy rains, finding troubling results.

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