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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

October 1996

Paint the town with WAVes

Community groups are leaving their mark for a cleaner environment.

Pamela Packer

Teen-agers and spray paint – that's a combination guaranteed to draw attention. So, when members of a 4-H club got busy with spray cans in a Madison neighborhood, a police officer pulled over to tell them...what a great job they were doing!

With spray paint and stencils, volunteers from schools, youth groups, adult programs and churches are teaching others about stormwater pollution. Groups in more than 60 Wisconsin communities caught the WAV and passed it on to more than 2,000 people last year.

WAV, pronounced wave, stands for Water Action Volunteers, a partnership combining the Department of Natural Resources' water resource expertise and the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension's educational skills to coordinate independent stream and river activities around the state. WAV provides educational materials and know-how for local volunteers who want to take action to improve water quality. WAV groups are stenciling the message: Dump No Waste, Drains to River/Stream/Lake next to storm sewers to remind people that whatever is dumped into storm drains doesn't just disappear – it flows into nearby waterways.

Stenciling storm drains is easy, visible and fun. "Four high school classes stenciled 477 storm drains in less than a week," noted a volunteer from the Lincoln County Land Conservation Department. Students in the Green Bay area stenciled over 350 storm drain inlets. 4-H clubs in Green County want to stencil every drain in the county; more than 1,000 drains have been done so far.

One phone call to the WAV program will begin a community building activity that also improves the environment. WAV supplies stencils and step-by-step stenciling directions upon request. Volunteers pick their messages based on where the storm sewers in their community drain. In areas of Milwaukee where sanitary sewers and storm waters combine, the message states: Dump No Waste, Protect our Drinking Water.

WAV also supplies groups with door hanger cards and fact sheets to distribute to nearby residents. The information explains the sources of stormwater pollution, and suggests ways to curb the problem.

Each volunteer group purchases its own paint and supplies or borrows supplies from city government. Local ordinances may limit where stencils can be applied. Getting permission from a governmental board, city engineer, public works department and neighborhood associations offers a great opportunity to learn how local decisions are made.

Volunteer stencilers get a close-up view of what flushes down storm sewers. "You wouldn't believe all of the junk in some of the storm drains."

In most Wisconsin communities, stormwater is not treated before it reaches the nearest surface water. Rain and snow melt running off from parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, streets, roofs, and yards carries many pollutants.

Common things like lawn care chemicals or soap from washing a car act as fertilizers in aquatic systems and encourage weed growth. Soil from yards and construction sites or farm fields turn local waterways cloudy or turbid. Cloudy water makes it difficult for fish to see and feed, soil in the water is abrasive against fish gills and sediment can smother fish eggs. Bacterial contamination from pet and livestock waste makes rivers and lakes unsafe for swimming and other types of recreation. This time of year, leaves and grass clippings are the culprits in stormwater: Yard waste decomposing in lakes and streams consumes the oxygen needed by aquatic organisms, and the decomposed plant matter increases the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen in the water, spurring the growth of aquatic weeds.

Simple steps can make a big difference. Recycling used oil, using lawn chemicals sparingly, mowing your grass no shorter than two inches, washing your car on the lawn, collecting pet waste and keeping fallen leaves out of the gutter until they are collected all help improve water quality.

Based on the feedback from volunteers, I'd estimate that nearly 10,000 storm drain inlets were stenciled this spring. In some cases I could not fill specific stencil orders because the demand was so high.

You might also contact the Lake Michigan Federation, Chippewa and Waukesha County land conservation departments, the Adopt-A-Lake program, the Audubon Society or the Wisconsin River Alliance to pick up pointers on how to paint the town.

Pamela Packer coordinates the Water Action Volunteers program for the Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Service.