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Environmental Health - Part 1: Clean Water for Streams   By Karen Munro, M. Sc., Environmental Scientist, 

I have starting taking my physical body more seriously and recently met Vreni for a health assessment. As we talked, the conversation wandered and I commented on how a healthy body is like a healthy stream – all the activities in our life (i.e., the watershed) contribute to this health. Many health professionals and agencies promote the connection between healthy bodies and healthy environments. Ministry of the Environment

Environmental health is a passion of mine; it is my profession and my volunteer commitment. I have been a streamkeeper for over ten years and an aquatic scientist for almost three decades. Sometimes I take for granted everyone knows what I know, so when someone reminds that isn’t so, I feel re-invigorated to share my knowledge, enthusiasm and need for a healthy environment.

Vreni asked me to write a few columns about healthy streams. This one is about water quality. Subsequent articles talk about habitat, urban growth and the power of volunteers. Although I write from the Pacific coast (British Columbia), these issues apply anywhere there is water and land (i.e., everywhere).

In my neighbourhood, there are lots of streams, some still with salmon or trout in them. There are juvenile insects down in the rocky bottom, algae (the brown or green film) coating the boulders and cobbles, birds flitting through the vegetation, all contributing to the food web or ecosystem.

These streamside environments provide many “ecosystem” benefits (water and air purification, biodiversity, productivity) and they also provide an oasis for humans, a place to let natural sounds fill our ears, let the cares of the day slip off during a walk, and to appreciate the power and beauty of nature.

Now imagine a slug of silty or toxic water entering the system. This happens daily or weekly in urban streams, and kills aquatic life. I call it random acts of storm drain abuse.

We are connected to the nearest stream or lake or ocean through a network of storm-water pipes that drain our driveways, streets and even our roofs to the nearest stream. This network is not a sewer (as in storm sewer) and it does not connect to the wastewater treatment plant. The bigger picture is that all that water eventually ends up in the ocean, and many of those compounds are not good for the treatment plants either.

When it rains, the water runs over lawns, gardens, concrete and asphalt, carrying everything to the stream. At other times, people discard common but toxic substances that end up entering the storm drains. These and many other compounds end up in the stream:
  • dog waste (contains E. coli and other bacteria);
  • sand and silt from construction sites, especially from single family lots, (smother eggs and clogs or cuts fish and insect gills);
  • caustic rinse water from cement installation and concrete cutting work (makes the water more alkaline, higher pH)
  • excess fertilizers and pesticides from gardens and lawns (can create excessive algae blooms);
  • oils, greases and heavy metals, including copper, zinc, cadmium, molybdenum and lead, from vehicles (road runoff);
  • soaps and detergents from car washing or from house cleaning (fish don’t need to bathe);
  • swimming pool and hot tub water; and
  • drinking water (chlorine or chloramine are deadly, and burn the skin of fish).
Such “nonpoint” sources of pollution are not regulated the way that industrial effluent discharges or “point” sources are monitored and controlled, yet can cumulatively contribute as much or more to environmental problems (think of recent stories about toxin levels in killer whales and other marine mammals).

What to do about this? Knowledge is vital, then start close to home and expand outward.
  1. Keep such toxic compounds out of the storm drains. Better yet, avoid using them at all.
  2. Use water and a soft cloth to wash your car (no detergent or soap – this from a European friend who thinks more about cars than streams).
  3. Paint a yellow fish beside the drain (many British Columbia communities participate in the storm drain marking program instigated by Fisheries and Oceans Canada). This reminds neighbours that the street drains to fish-bearing waters. Steal this idea if it isn’t in your area Storm Drain Marking Program
  4. Read up on local sediment erosion control bylaws so you can watch to see that construction sites are doing their best to protect against contaminated waste water entering streams through storm drains.
  5. Connect with a local stewardship group to develop a more widespread campaign.
  6. Lobby your local government to improve protection (bylaws, oil and grit separators).
For more information, links and networking, check out These sites have links to organizations across North America.