Snow or rain, it all flows downstream

Published February 19, 2010

If you live in a mid-Atlantic state you have probably seen crews tackling the huge job of removing more than 36 inches of snow that fell during two blizzards. In a city like Baltimore, packed with houses, cars, businesses and sidewalks, where do you put all that snow?  For this very unusual snow situation, Baltimore has turned to a very unusual option: after getting the required permission from the Maryland Department of the Environment, they have dumped snow into the Harbor.  This has raised questions and debate about whether dumping the salt-laden snow into the Harbor will damage the health of the Harbor or affect the Bay.  The answer is yes, but the reason may surprise you.  Dumping snow in the Harbor increases the pollution, but interestingly, dumping snow won’t necessarily be more environmentally harmful than a series of heavy storms. We are in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, where all precipitation – including melted snow - runs into storm drains, and eventually into the Harbor and the Bay. Along the way, that water picks up pollutants - dirt, oil, car exhaust and other sources - as it flows across our yards, sidewalks, roofs, driveways and streets into the nearest storm drain and downstream to the Harbor. Even melted snow or rain from surrounding counties makes its way to storm drains that all lead to the Harbor. This water does not go through some kind of water purifying system before it goes into the Harbor. It goes straight into the Harbor with its pollutants, trash and debris.  It’s easy to see these pollutants when you look at snow - the pure white is a stark contrast for the collected pollutants that blacken the snow banks – and being able to see that pollution can make it more difficult to see it being dumped into the harbor. It’s never good to pollute. Ultimately snow and rain take the same journey. But what about all the road salt that gets picked up by the plows? It’s really not a major issue because the Harbor is always salty. Estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay and brackish water systems like the Baltimore Harbor are built for fluctuations in salinity. The major concern here is the pollutants that are mixed into the snow. This May when we get a nice spring thunderstorm, we hope people are asking the same questions about Harbor and Bay pollution, and about what they can do to limit it.  The same unseen pollutants will be rapidly whisked away to the harbor through storm drain systems.  Fertilizers or weed inhibitors you apply to your lawn find their way to the Bay. Trash from the streets and objects that wash into storm drains all flow downstream.   The same oil, gasoline and dirt we see in the snow now becomes part of the Chesapeake Bay. It all runs downstream. Here is what you can do to improve the water quality of the harbor: Never throw anything down storm drains. Keep the streets clean of trash, and dispose of trash and recycling in a way that keeps it from being blown around. Avoid using fertilizers on your lawn, or to melt the snow. Drive less. These small, but important, steps will help improve the quality of our waterways. We are glad the snow dumping sparked questions about the health of the Harbor. Let’s all do our part, because everything flows downstream!
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