Stormwater runoff puts water supply, homes at risk
Every time it rained in Charlotte, N.C., Kasey Latham's garage flooded. "I live very close to a creek that overflows regularly," says the Angie's List member. "A good hard rain is all it takes and two-thirds of my backyard disappeared under water."
Latham says her flooding property, combined with the sight of neighborhood storm drains covered with debris, prompted her to take action. "I care because this is our water supply," she says. "Our lakes are becoming so polluted that we're being warned not to catch and eat fish."
Latham and her neighbors took a diligent approach to solving their community's stormwater issues. "One by one, homeowners landscaped to minimize runoff and incorporated local plants into their gardens," she says. "I've also seen an increase in the use of rain barrels." To solve her own problems, Latham hired a landscaper to cut a drainage ditch in the driveway, install pipes to send the overflow to the backyard and landscaped to allow contaminated water to soak into the soil rather than flow into the creek.
Other homeowners across the country have also made efforts to combat stormwater runoff. Forty-six percent of Angie's List members responding to a recent online poll say they've added landscaping to control erosion. Thirty-six percent have installed drainage pipes.
Member Julia Renouard of Shoreline, Wash., says her home's location in a valley makes her very aware of runoff. "I've had drainage problems that caused water to enter the basement," she says. "I was able to mitigate it with a few adjustments to the grading of the lawn, but I still get anxious if it's raining hard. I'll run around the house, checking the gutters, downspouts and drains for pooling water."
Residential stormwater runoff occurs when rain or snowmelt flows over the ground. It becomes a problem when encountering impervious surfaces like driveways, streets and sidewalks that prevent the water from soaking into the ground. Instead, the water picks up hazardous chemicals, dirt and other pollutants before flowing into a storm sewer system, which carries it untreated to a watershed.
"It impacts every water body nationwide," says Amanda Rockler, regional watershed restoration specialist for the University of Maryland's Sea Grant Extension, an organization dedicated to revitalizing the Chesapeake Bay. "Bacteria and sediment are huge components of runoff pollution."
For those living in older homes, sewer pipes can pollute waterways and your home as they age and become susceptible to tree root intrusion or degradation. "As pipes break and collapse, raw sewage can leach into surrounding soil and contaminate groundwater sources," says Paul Abrams, spokesman for Roto-Rooter Services Company, based in Cincinnati. The leaky pipes also allow water to seep into the system and can cause sewage to back up into the home. Abrams says they often have to replace the old lines with PVC piping - which can cost thousands of dollars.
Many communities built before the 1940s have combined storm and sewer collection systems. During heavy rains or melting snow, they often overflow directly into nearby bodies of water untreated. Some older homes also have downspouts, driveway drains or sump pumps improperly connected to the sanitary sewer line, causing high volumes of stormwater that can flood basements and properties.
Homes at risk
In addition to harming the environment, excessive stormwater can actually damage a home's structural integrity, according to several highly rated Angie's List service providers. "It's a big problem with damaging foundations and basements," says Jeff Watkins, owner of A Handyman & A Greenthumb in Excelsior Springs, Mo. "It causes hydrostatic pressure that can crack walls and cause settling, which affects the structural stability of the house, and over time, can cause Sheetrock to crack and prevent doors from opening and closing properly."
Watkins says drainage solutions are a big part of his business. "Sometimes it's just a matter of adding soil and grading, and other times it can take more complicated solutions that involve work around the whole property," he says.
Michael Lewandowski, director of business operations for Great Lakes Builders Inc. in Chicago, says water can be tough to deal with - especially in an urban setting. "You have to move the water away from the house because it can cause the house to expand and contract. It can literally move the house."
Before any project that impacts sediment or erosion, homeowners should check that their contractors are appropriately licensed and have pulled required permits.
Proper disposal of household hazardous materials is another important step in reducing contaminates that enter the waterways. While many members responding to the Angie's List online poll say they get rid of old paint, motor oil, pesticides and solvents in environmentally friendly ways - like recycling - 7 percent say they toss such items in the trash. One percent say they pour out the excess on their property and 20 percent say they leave these types of products sitting around waiting to be discarded.
Certain types of household waste have the potential to contaminate septic tanks or wastewater treatment systems if poured down drains or toilets, and present hazards to children and pets if left around the house. Because disposal regulations vary, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends calling your local health or solid waste agency to ask about local collection programs.
For many, the solution to alleviating stormwater runoff pollution lies in the backyard. "People need to pick up their dog poop," says member Mary Jo Stirling of Pacific Palisades, Calif. "I live on a hill [near] the ocean, and when it rains everything runs directly toward the Pacific. People aren't educated on the impact runoff can have."
Not only does pet waste "burn" the yard, it contains bacteria that can contaminate watersheds, says Scott Wexler, owner of highly rated Doggie Yard Maid in Bloomingdale, Ill. "Most people just think it goes away, and it does eventually," he says. "It's just where it goes that is a problem. The best thing to do is flush it down your toilet."
Paying attention to all the details can help you responsibly control runoff. "We use native plants that don't need much water, fertilizer or pest control, and they help reduce erosion," says Andy Nicholls, owner of highly rated Ecoyards in Seattle. "We also promote building healthy soil by amending landscape beds with good compost to help it absorb excess runoff. There are many little things you can do that add up."
Member Peg Schmidt of Pittsburgh says installing a rain barrel and rerouting some of her drainage lines has helped alleviate runoff issues. "I'm still very concerned about water pollution," she says. "But I believe through responsible homeownership, we can make a difference."