8 ways you may be polluting our lakes and streams—without knowing it

Clean our water by avoiding these activities.

According to the EPA, nonpoint source pollution is the leading remaining cause of water pollution and water quality problems. The effects of nonpoint source pollutants vary; however, we know these pollutants have harmful effects on drinking water supplies, recreation, fisheries and wildlife. Each of us can do small things to help clean up our water.

1. Sweeping grass into streets

When mowing your yard, make certain that you do not blow grass clippings into the street. If grass does end up on the street or sidewalk, use a broom or lead blower to get clippings back on the lawn. From our streets to our streams—grass clippings flow down into waterways and pollute nearby lakes and streams. Clippings contribute nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which can cause unwanted growth of algae and aquatic weeds in the waterways.

2. Not cleaning up after your dog

Pet owners, take note. When you clean up after your pet, do you dump their waste in the street of storm sewer? Or worse, do you neglect to clean up at all? Melting snow or rain washes improperly disposed pet waste into storm sewers—which typically drain DIRECTLY in our lakes and streams. Pet waste in our waterways uses up oxygen and releases ammonia, which combined with warm temperatures, can kill fish. The waste also contains nutrients that encourage weed and algae growth.

3. Overusing pesticides and fertilizers on your yard

What you put on your lawn may eventually find its way into our waters. When pesticides and fertilizers, which include nitrates, are overused or sprayed on impermeable surfaces such as driveways or sidewalks, they take on a new role. Instead of plants using them, these products end up running off into storm drains during rainfall and become stormwater pollution. Reduce the amount of fertilizer you apply by soil testing your yard first to determine its need—you may need less than you think!

4. Using antibacterial soaps

That’s right. Products you use in the house eventually make it out into the environment. Triclosan, the active ingredient found in much anti-bacterial soap, cosmetics and toothpastes, could be at a costing the environment. University of Minnesota scientists say those anti-bacterial soaps that we think get us cleaner are actually be polluting our lakes and rivers. That’s according to a new University of Minnesota study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Triclosan, is building up in lake sediment. In one lake tested, triclosan and its derivatives — seven chemicals into which triclosan breaks down in the environment — made up more than 60 percent of its mass of dioxins.

Plus, recent research shows that anti-bacterial soaps are not even very effective at killing bacteria. The FDA is examining these soaps and body washes and requiring manufacturers to prove their effectiveness and long-term safeness.

5. Littering

When debris, including cigarettes, is thrown on the ground, it gets washed into storm drains and flows directly into our environment. Litter decreases oxygen in the water when it decays. Most litter can be recycled—plastic bags, aluminum cans, glass bottles, etc. –to protect the environment. Carry a bag for waste along in the car to eliminate the temptation to throw it out the window or put litter in your pocket until you find a recycling container or trash can.

6. Flushing medicines down the toilet

For years, it was recommended you dispose of unwanted medications by flushing them down the drain. Medicines flushed down the drain can contaminate water, which can harm aquatic wildlife and end up in our drinking water. Unused medications can also lead to accidental poisoning and drug abuse. Dispose of old or unused prescription and over-the-counter medications safely. Take advantage of community Take it to the Box programs. Many police and sheriff facilities have permanent drop boxes. Contact your city or county to see what options are available in your community.

7. Not taking care of your septic system

A poorly functioning septic system is a threat to human health and the environment because it may not remove pathogens, nutrients and other chemicals from the used water before it enters our groundwater or lakes. Many assume as long as their water “goes away,” their system is working properly. Only regular maintenance and evaluation of the system can ensure that it is actually treating your sewage. Some symptoms of poorly functioning septic systems include excessive plant growth in nearly ponds or lakes, pipes that does directly into lake or ground and obviously, sewage surfacing in the yard or ditch.

8. Overusing salt during winter

Winters bring slippery roads, parking lots and sidewalks. You know the drill—when snow and ice, the common reaction is to apply salt, which contains chloride, as a de-icer. When snow and ice melt, the salt goes with it and washes into our lakes and groundwater. It takes only one teaspoon of road salt to pollute 5 gallons of water. Once in the water, there is no way to remove the chloride. Chloride then enters our waterways and is carried downward into the aquifers that provide drinking water.

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