Water Quality: Storm Water Pollution Affects All of Us

By Rhonda Thiele and Jeanne Riley


Oily sheen in Mill Creek Photo by Dan Griffin

If you heard the news reports last week about an oily sheen floating in Mill Creek, you probably also heard that it was traced back to a nearby storm drain. Sampling of the area near 3300 South and 700 East in Salt Lake City showed that the sheen came from a small amount of motor oil discharged into the water through a storm drain. While we still don’t know the original source of the oil, this incident reminds us how easily discharges into storm drains, even small ones, can contaminate our rivers, streams, and drinking water supplies.

Some people believe that anything that flows into a storm drain is basically “out-of-sight, out-of mind” and doesn’t cause any real harm. What many people don’t realize is that storm drains, unlike wastewater treatment plants, don’t treat the water before it reaches rivers or streams. Storm drains aren’t designed to remove pollutants, so pouring something down a storm drain is the same as pouring it directly into a stream.

The storm drains on your street are actually part of a larger water conveyance system of underground pipes, catch basins, curbs, gutters, ditches, and canals. Known as a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, or MS4, this system is subject to regulation by the Division of Water Quality (DWQ) through an MS4 storm water permit. The permit requirements are intended to reduce pollutant discharges and meet water quality standards through the development and implementation of a Storm Water Management Program (SWMP). SWMP requirements are grouped into six minimum-control measures

  1. Public education and outreach
  2. Public involvement and participation
  3. Illicit discharge detection and elimination (IDDE)
  4. Construction site storm water runoff control
  5. Long-term storm water management in new development and redevelopment
  6. Pollution prevention and good housekeeping for municipal operations

23february2015_mill-creek-sheen-2Measures in the SWMP define roles and responsibilities for IDDE and provide education to the public on how to report suspicious discharges. In this recent incident, when a concerned citizen contacted the Salt Lake Fire Department about the sheen, the fire department notified DWQ and Salt Lake County Health. We, in turn, contacted the holder of the local MS4 permit, Salt Lake County. The County MS4 coordinators and the Salt Lake County Health Department investigated the complaint and attempted to track the discharge back to its source. DWQ conducted sampling to determine the nature of the discharge, and the Health Department placed absorbent booms in the creek to contain the contamination. This kind of interagency collaboration ensures that discharges are dealt with in an organized and timely manner.

While we don’t yet know how the motor oil made its way into Mill Creek, we do know that dumping pollutants into a storm drain is illegal. Not only is it illegal, dumping any material into a storm drain harms water quality. One gallon of motor oil dumped into a storm drain can pollute 250,000 gallons of drinking water. But storm water pollution can come from a number of sources, not just from illegal dumping. Substances from our homes and lawns can flow into storm drains and pollute our waters. These include:

  • Soap
  • Oil/transmission spills or leaks
  • Landscaping materials (topsoil, grass clippings, lawn debris)
  • Fertilizers and pesticides
  • Pet waste

But you can make a difference! Here are six easy steps, courtesy of the Salt Lake Storm Water Coalition, that you can take to reduce your contribution to storm water pollution:

  • Wash your car on the lawn or at a carwash
  • Mulch your grass clippings and leave them on the lawn
  • Put yard waste in a yard waste can or trash can
  • Pick up pet waste
  • Minimize your use of fertilizers and pesticides and keep them off the sidewalks
  • Clean up spills and leaks and dispose of the cleanup materials properly

Using these Best Management Practices at home can prevent storm water pollution and help keep our rivers and streams clean.

If you observe illegal dumping or see suspicious material in a waterway, contact your local health department immediately! If you live in Salt Lake County, you can call the Salt Lake County Health Department Emergency Number at (801) 580-6681. If you cannot reach your local health department, call DEQ’s 24-hour spills hotline at (801) 536-4123. Please include important details such as the address, description of the person or vehicle involved (if you observe illegal dumping), the time, and your name and contact information (unless you prefer to remain anonymous). Your help is vital to ensuring that we keep our rivers and streams clean and safe.

23february2015_rhondaRhonda Thiele

I am a graduate of Southeast Missouri State University with a Bachelor of Science in Aquatic Biology. I have been the MS4 Program Coordinator for DWQ for the last eight years. Prior to this, I worked for the Salt Lake County Health Department for 15 years in storm water management, emergency response, pollution prevention, and household hazardous waste. I served as a facilitator at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center for the Advanced Environmental Crimes Training Program. I also worked in Seattle, Washington in lake restoration for two years. I really enjoy my job. The MS4 program is very complex, and I have the opportunity to work closely with municipalities, EPA, and other states to help our permittees develop their storm water programs and protect Utah’s water quality. I enjoy spending time outdoors, gardening, playing guitar, and taking care of my numerous pets.

23february2015_jeanne_and_family_uintasJeanne Riley

I joined the Utah Division of Water Quality as the Storm Water Specialist in 2014. Although relatively new to Utah, I have quickly fallen in love with the state and enjoy helping our communities manage their storm water runoff and better protect our water resources. My early career was spent as an environmental consultant in New England, southwest Montana, and the Lake Tahoe Basin. Originally from Massachusetts, I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil Engineering and a Master of Science Degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. With my husband and two kids, I enjoy camping, hiking, traveling and especially skiing the greatest snow on earth in the great state of Utah.