Keeping Our Waterways Clean
Small actions see big solutions when it comes to our waterways
By Rachel Kelly
We live on the beach. Sand, water, sunbathing, picnics and boating ... we’ve got it all. Every summer, or sometimes all year round, there’s a rush to the waterways. The boats, jet skis and kayaks all come out to play. Which is something wonderful! Living where we live, it’s a privilege. As locals, we get to enjoy the beauty of living in the pristine Pacific Northwest all year. It’s a well-kept secret (or is it?) that we live in some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. But with the pristine waters, the open space and the snow-capped mountain ranges comes a certain weight of responsibility. Sometimes even frustration.
“Where there’s people, there’s trash,” says Weston Cedarblom of Coeur D’Love, a conservation organization founded to help keep trash out of our waters. That’s the reality of living by major waterways: It’s the place to be. Locals and visitors alike come to appreciate the beauty. However, during the rush, often it’s the locals who are stuck with the backend of the pollution. It’s no wonder that we rate preservation to be of high importance around here. Pollution always ends up in the water, and here with our rivers, lakes and oceans, we can see it. It’s a shame to see something so lovely go to waste.
Comments in response to seeing trash in our waterways on social media include lots of negativity (go figure). In between the threats and general disappointment, there’s actually a lot of ideas. Should we up the ante on punishments for litter? But then, who would enforce it? Maybe there should be a special litter police. Or, maybe we can be more proactive in speaking out when we see someone littering. But then ... there are just so many people. Can we really be in every park, by every waterway, to point our fingers at the litter bugs? Some people are just all for giving up. It’s destroyed, might as well stop trying! Ultimately, all this negativity doesn’t bring about solutions. Finger-pointing feels good, but it doesn't pick up trash. “If you love something, you take care of it,” says Weston.
When it comes to the trash that often comes along with the summer season, the solution is simple. What you take in you pack out! While you’re at it, pick up a little extra. When it comes to the health of our towns, cities and waterways, there’s no time to play the blame game. We’re all in this together for the sake of what’s ours.
And that’s just it, isn’t it? This place is ours. At the end of the day, we love where we live. It’s up to us to take care of it, a euphemism that’s easier said than done. It might seem complicated, but Weston boils it down to two common commodities: time and money. If you don’t have money, then give your time. And if you don’t have time, give your money. There are plenty of products out there whose profits go toward conservation. Coeur D’Love is just one such organization that sells products, as well as actively encouraging community participation. Giving one of two basic commodities is simple enough—and something that most people can get behind.
The decisions that we make today don’t just encompass us. Today’s pollution is greater than our generation. Keeping our waterways clear ensures clean drinking water, fishing and recreation for future generations. Water is life. Without it, where would we be? To clean it up we need a game plan. This is why research-backed information to support keeping our watershed pure is so important. Research confirms a solid direction for preservation efforts, fuels advocacy, and highlights specific opportunities for community involvement. Nonprofits like the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper provide that research, and are, not surprisingly, greatly reliant on their volunteers. Other city organizations, like the Tacoma Center for Urban Waters, also rely heavily on community support to keep our waterways clean. Just as water is connected, and knows no boundaries, so must our connections reach across barriers to ensure its preservation.
The connection between waterways is also illustrative of its greater connection to all life. Water makes up 70 percent of the Earth’s surface for good reason; through it we are all connected. In fact, we can often determine the general health of our waterways by keeping tabs on the local wildlife. The suffering of wildlife is often a precursor to what we have to look forward to. If the wildlife is healthy, we have a future of health to look forward to, and vice versa. In the Puget Sound, salmon has steadily been declining at an ever-increasing rate. Salmon is a keystone species, which is another way of saying that it is an essential part of our ecosystem. All manner of life depends on the health of the coho salmon. Orca, birds of prey, bears and seals eat salmon. In turn, a vast number of other species suffer if those predators decline. And on and on and so forth. Without salmon, the whole of the land, and all the species living in it, die or suffer. This is why the decline of salmon is so alarming.
Researchers from the Center for Urban Waters, the University of Washington, and the Washington State University published in 2020’s Science magazine an unlikely culprit for the death of our salmon: car tires. Vehicle tires shed tiny particles of rubber, which get washed down the storm drains in the rain. Specifically, chemicals within the “dust” from the tires are causing harm to our waterways. These chemicals are, understandably, more present in major urban areas with more roadways. It’s the rubber and the chemicals from the tires that ultimately kill the Coho Salmon. Since many of Washington’s largest cities are on waterways, understanding the ins and outs of stormwater pollution is especially important.
This ground-breaking research was only just published in 2020, but the idea of preventing pollution through the protection of our drains is not. “Prevention of stormwater pollution applies equally to all cities, regardless of whether they have a separated sewer and storm water system,” says Sarah Norber, an environmental specialist for the Center for Urban Waters. It’s not widely known that car tires specifically are a key part in stormwater pollution, but it is widely known that cars are major pollutants. In light of new and old research, using public forms of transport can go a long way in preserving our waterways. Other ways to preserve our waterways include riding bikes, fixing car leaks, using commercial car washes, limiting the use of pesticides and practicing the proper disposal of chemicals. All roads lead to water, and all drains eventually end up in our oceans.
When we analyze the challenges facing our waterways, the problem can seem too overwhelming to solve. It’s a difficult prospect to take on the responsibility for our actions, as well as those of others. Anger takes precedence over that of service. The temptation to throw in the towel and move on is understandable. But we can find encouragement in our successes. What we do does matter, and what we’re doing together will work. Thea Foss Waterway is just one such example.
Located in Tacoma, Washington, the once thriving Thea Foss Waterway was characterized in the 1980s by oil sheen, tar deposits and dilapidated buildings. The people and wildlife in the area were laboring under the consequences of over a century of environmentally insensitive practices. There was even a resurgence of the Black Plague in the area in the late 1970s. Though that particular example is interesting, it may be partially unrelated. Regardless, it does highlight just how bad things had gotten. So bad that in 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency identified the waterway to be a part of the larger Commencement Bay Superfund site. This means that Thea Foss Waterway was one of the most polluted places in the nation. The kind of contamination that Tacoma, and Washington as a whole, was tasked with cleaning up was staggering. As a major waterway connected to the ocean, this pollution was especially distressing. What’s more, the pollution was generational. Having spanned over a century, it seemed like things would continue to go along as they always had. If it were not for a deep respect and longing for something better, things would have gone along as they always had.
However, in 1994, the city came together to aggressively clean up the waterway. This involved hundreds of soil samples to identify exactly where the contamination was coming from and resulted in the addition of several new shoreline habitats. The city, businesses, grantees and community members from all over gave their time and money, a total of $105 million in funds. Keeping the storm water drains clear of contaminants was an especially important community effort that required very little money or time, and yet has resulted in big positive outcomes. Over a decade ago, in 2006, the cleanup was completed. It is the reason that locals can play, live and work safely by the waterway today. Wildlife to the once desolate area has returned. Since 2006, efforts have been focused on capping off other sources of pollution and keeping the waterway clean. It has absolutely paid off. Later this year, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to remove the waterway from its list of Superfund sites. It’s an understatement to say that the city is heaving a collective sigh of relief. The people, and the land, are at rest.
A little bit goes a long way when we’re talking about the whole of our community. It’s true that one person can’t fix the larger problem of pollution, but a lot of us can. The truth is that we’re everyday people, with everyday goals. We just want the opportunity to jump in the water when it’s hot, raise our kids someplace where they can enjoy the outdoors, and grow old in peace. Big projects take big people, who have big connections, with big organizations, and big pockets. But those organizations, our home, is made up of us. Nothing will move, and nothing can change, if we’re not emboldened to do so. Taking responsibility for what we put down the drain is just one example of a small everyday act that makes significant changes to wildlife, neighborhoods, and the health of thousands of people.
As a whole, we are individuals with limited means. Our acts of heroism are confined to the every day. The little acts, like picking up trash that we didn’t throw, or taking the bus, are acts of significance. The pride that we take in our waterways impacts the lives of those who live and breathe in our environment. The way that you personally approach the world affects the larger picture. When it comes to water, our decisions flow out to bigger and bigger places. The overall problem may seem overwhelming, but the solution is straightforward. If you see it, pick it up. If you drink it, keep it clean. It’s a mindset that, if it catches on, makes a big difference. But, it starts with you. It starts with us. When it comes to our waterways, we’re all connected.