New app lets community take active role in cleaning up waterways

Pollution doesn’t just come from big, industrial sources. Here's how I helped protect water from everyday pollution. |February 3, 2020

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By Hilary Parker, Water Reporter user. See part 2 of her blog on having productive conversations about pollution.

As a biologist, Kirsten McDade has a trained eye for spotting water pollution before it gets into our waterways. Now, she’s sharing her knowledge with concerned residents so they, too, can feel empowered to recognize and point out common pollution.

As part of her work, Kirsten is introducing a new pollution tracking app to the community. The app, Water Reporter, was created as an easy way for people to report suspected water pollution as they go about their everyday lives. Once someone downloads the app, all that’s required is to take a photo, write a brief description, and post it to the app — regardless of whether or not they’re certain it’s pollution. At that point, local environmental organizations monitor the posts and then take action as needed, typically by calling the appropriate agency to alert them to the problem.

“I feel that the more people who understand the issues, the more eyes on the water, the better chance our waters will get cleaned up and avoid getting contaminated in the first place,” she says.

Water pollution in my neighborhood or along my favorite trails wasn’t on my radar until I attended Kirsten’s talk on noticing pollution in November 2019. But after hearing her presentation, I quickly realized that potential water pollution is pervasive. It’s the trash kids leave behind at the park across the street from my house that finds its way into the stream. It’s the construction project up the road, where dirt and debris race down the hillside in a recent storm. It’s the sheen of oil on the roadway by the small lake I like to walk around on weekends. 

“By the time it gets to the ocean, water is loaded with contaminants. Stopping the sources on land is our best bet.”

— Kirsten McDade, Pollution Prevention Specialist

The hard truth is that our waters are polluted and it’s harming precious native wildlife, such as endangered orcas and Chinook salmon — and everything along their food chain. That means we as humans are affected, too, as we consume salmon and other seafood. 

Substances like petroleum products, heavy metals, pesticides, flame retardants, and PCBs – along with “contaminants of emerging concern,” over 200 chemicals which we know worryingly little about — are harmful to wildlife and humans. 

One thing scientists do know: contaminants accumulate and magnify up the food chain. Small amounts of contaminants are ingested by the smallest animals on the food chain, and as bigger and bigger animals eat the smaller ones, they also eat the contaminants. 

Even PCBs, which were banned from use in the United States in 1979, are still found in our waters and are still showing up in the breast milk, brains and livers of humans and animals.

Much of these contaminants aren’t being dumped directly into the water. They originate on land and find their way into the oceans from runoff and stormwater drains. In fact, Kirsten says, more than 80% of contaminants in the ocean come from land. 

“By the time it gets to the ocean, water is loaded with contaminants.” she says. “Stopping the sources on land is our best bet.” That’s where the Water Reporter app comes in. Currently, Kirsten is leading workshops to teach people how to use the app and to recognize everyday pollution like so they can report it.

A recent study by a Washington State University researcher found that coho salmon fry raised in water collected from a storm drain died in less than 24 hours. One of the main toxics determined to have affected the fry was from tire dust.

Other contaminants to look for on land include dog poop, motor oil, and sediment from construction sites.

Sediment contains toxics that may be “hitchhiking” on the particles. Once sediment reaches salmon-bearing streams, it can fill in the small gaps between pebbles in the river bed. Those gaps contain oxygen necessary for developing salmon eggs. No gaps equals no oxygen.

“Nothing but clean water should go down the storm drain,” Kirsten says.

Other pollution warning signs in water include discolored or overabundant discharge from outflow pipes, foam, sheen (such as from oil or gas), dead fish, and unexpected algal blooms on ponds or lakes. Algal blooms now “start earlier and last longer,” Kirsten says. They are often a sign the water quality has changed and may need to be addressed. See RE Sources guidebook on common pollution sources.

You can stop pollution right now! It’s easier than you may think.

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This product is funded through a Public Participation Grant from the Department of Ecology.