The top cause of poor water quality results for Lake Superior and its watersheds is stormwater runoff pollution. Stormwater runoff happens when rain or snowmelt washes chemicals, debris, household and pet waste and other pollutants into storm drains, and from there into the lake.
The good news is that stormwater runoff is a problem that individuals and citizens can have a major impact in solving on a personal level. Since most stormwater pollutants come straight from our houses and yards, keeping them out of the stormwater system is often under our control. In this article, we’ll look at what you can do with your yard, lawn and garden to reduce your personal stormwater pollution.
Fertilizers & pesticides If you use chemicals like fertilizers or pesticides outdoors in your yard or garden, there are a few things you can do to keep their impact on stormwater as low as possible. Choosing organic alternatives such as mulch and compost and reducing the amount of fertilizer you use are good steps. Use just the recommended amount of fertilizer, and avoid using it along waterways that may be near your property.
Timing is important too; check the weather forecast to avoid applying pesticides and fertilizers before a rainstorm or windy day, when the chemicals will be carried faster to the watersheds and affect a larger area. The EPA also suggests researching the plants and grasses that you intend to fertilize, so you can determine when the period of maximum nutrient uptake and growth for the plant is. Applying fertilizer in this period helps the plant use it instead of having it wash away. In cool climates like ours, these periods commonly take place in the spring and again in the fall.
As far as good handling of fertilizers and other chemicals goes, the best course of action is to prepare fertilizer spreaders or other methods of dispersal over a hard surface, like a table or garage floor, so that spills can be easily cleaned up and reclaimed rather than ending up in a storm drain. Proper storage of unused fertilizer (close it and put it away!) and proper disposal of empty chemical containers (don’t wash them down the drain, just put them in the trash) will also help. If you have old or unused lawn or yard chemicals, turn them in during your community’s household hazardous waste collection times.
Yard & lawn Lawn care can be a less obvious place to look for stormwater impacts, but they’re still there. The EPA recommends a few things to reduce lawn runoff.
The simplest one literally means less work for you — just don’t water your lawn as often. And, when you do, consider using soaker hoses, which trickle water directly to the ground rather than spray over a wide area like sprinklers. That cuts down on overwatering, and doesn’t carry away fertilizers from your lawn or garden as quickly. If you do have sprinklers, keep them on a short timer to avoid overwatering or pooling of water.
Minimizing asphalt and concrete in your yard and garden is another important step to take. Replacing them with more porous surfaces like bricks, gravel, cobbles, natural stone or permeable pavers helps stormwater absorb into the ground more readily.
As far as lawn hardware goes, keeping your lawn mowers, snowblowers, chainsaws, leaf blowers and any other outdoor power equipment well-maintained helps reduce the chance of leaky motors, noxious fumes or other pollutants around the yard. On a similar note, mow your lawn less often too. A lawn at least three inches high actually helps minimize weed growth, uses less water and decreases the likelihood of pests, therefore fewer pesticides are needed. Other things you can do: Leave grass clippings on the lawn to help retain moisture and act as a natural fertilizer and weed-blocker, and sweep sidewalks and driveways to clean them rather than hosing them down with water.
You also can choose grasses and landscaping plants that are native to your region, which grow better, root more deeply and retain water better than non-native plants will. For lawn seed in our area, some native choices are big and little bluestem, Canada wild rye, and buffalo grass, which is native to the Midwest if not Michigan.
Adding trees and shrubs to your yard is also a great improvement for stormwater. Trees affect the water cycle in your immediate environment by collecting rainfall effectively and strengthening soil conditions. They help control the movement of rainwater and snowmelt into the groundwater and streams or watersheds, and decrease flooding and erosion that can worsen water quality.
For more native tree and plant landscaping suggestions, the MSU Extension has a great list of plants native to the U.P. here.
Gardens Gardening is all about enjoying nature and its benefits, whether you do it for fresh garden veggies or to add beauty to your home. So, it makes sense to make sure you’re gardening in a fashion that benefits nature in return. Here are some ways to get more water-quality-friendly in your garden.
Use any chemicals sparingly, just like in the rest of your yard. Avoid harsh chemicals, and choose organic alternatives when you can. Using soaker hoses is a good idea here too, to avoid overwatering. And native plant choices for flowering plants and ornamentals are going to be a better bet than many mainstream garden choices available. The EPA suggests that backyard gardeners take a look at two key ideas: planting a rain garden, and using a rain barrel. The rain garden is a planting area of native plants, shrubs and trees, often with rock or gravel areas, that can improve runoff areas and allow water to soak into the ground. A rain barrel can be installed to collect rainwater that can then be used in your garden or yard, which not only conserves water but reduces stormwater runoff.
If you use pavers in your garden, choose permeable ones or create walkways in gravel to allow stormwater better access to the ground. Pay attention to possible stormwater management techniques like creating filter strips or buffer strips in places around your home that usually channel stormwater. That might include at the base of gutters, near driveways or sidewalks. If you’re ambitious, installing a “green roof” on your home or other buildings can slow down the stormwater runoff and allow plants to use the rainwater.
Finally, using yard waste like grass clippings and leaves as mulch or compost is a good way to save water and fertilizer, and has the added benefit from keeping the debris out of stormwater drains and streams. If you don’t want to re-use the yard waste, another option is to keep them tidied up in barrels or secure bags for either a community compost pile or regular disposal, which will have, at least, the effect of keeping them out of the stormwater systems.