This morning a wind squall and pounding rain woke me up long before the alarm clock. Before my coffee kicked in, I knew it was a special day - it was the opening day of stormwater season. I was as excited as any sports fan or fisher, because I had a plan – a stormwater sampling plan.
Before I was fully awake, I donned my full emersion winter bicycling outfit, and headed toward a local boatyard with three empty water sample bottles, a waterproof pen, waterproof paper, a crowbar, and a camera. It didn’t take long to completely wake up because the roadway was covered with inches of water and there were handlebar-clenching gusts of wind. But what was most alarming was the water itself. Water was everywhere, it was raining really hard, and everything that had accumulated on paved surfaces during the last few dry months was being swept along with these torrents of stormwater into Bellingham Bay.
From the boatyard, sheets of stormwater were shooting towards a storm drain located in the street, and from there, underground into the Bay. Along with the ashy grey water were paint chips, cigarette butts, and oily sheens. I labeled the first bottle and scooped up some of the runoff. At the next drain I popped the manhole cover off with the crowbar. Water was running into the drain from three sides, but the water I wanted was three feet down. This was not part of the plan. I had to lie down in the filthy water, and lean way down head first into the drain to collect a sample. It was disgusting, and I don't recommend it.
“First flush” is the initial surface water runoff of a rainstorm. Studies have shown that pollutants entering storm water during first flush are typically more concentrated than during the remainder of the storm, especially if it’s been a few months since the last rain event. That’s because pollutants accumulate on our streets and parking lots, including drips and spills from our cars, materials handling, industrial processes, atmospheric fallout, and our other daily activities. A major source of copper pollution in local waters is copper brake pads. Tiny copper shavings fall off brakes, settle on roads, and get swept into salmon streams, which we have a lot of around here.
Copper is added to boat paint as an anti-fouling agent that prevents the growth of barnacles, worms, and algae. Unless boatyards take time consuming steps to carefully collect all residues of this paint during boat hull repair, copper can enter stormwater at boatyards. Whether from brake pads, copper paint, or other sources, copper wreaks havoc on salmon and other fish because it inhibits their sense of smell. In Seattle urban streams, a high percentage of otherwise healthy Coho salmon die before spawning in some years, and it has been shown that mortality is much higher in watersheds with larger percentages of impervious surface area. Coho salmon typically wait until the first big rain events to start upstream, so they are especially vulnerable to pollutants contained in the first flush water.
Later in the morning I walked along a section of Whatcom Creek to look at the water. The water was ugly and there were lots of fisherman. There are dozens of storm drain outfalls from large areas of Bellingham that discharge directly into Whatcom Creek, without any treatment. So today, untold amounts of brake pad dust and lots of other unsavory summertime accumulations washed into the creek just as three species of salmon were spawning.
By the time I walked into the water quality lab with the samples, most of the dirt on my jacket had been washed off with rainwater, which was a good thing. I must have looked pretty disheveled to the lab folks, with my large crowbar, filthy water jugs, and soaking wet outfit that left an expanding puddle beneath me. Perhaps I’m the only one who delivers samples by bike. The lab was expecting lots of stormwater samples today, and they quietly wiped up the messy bottles and my puddle.
The good news is this: last year Washington State was the first state in the nation to approve a near ban on copper from vehicle brake pads. And starting in 2018, it will be against the law to sell new, recreational vessels with paint containing copper. Vessels over 65 feet long and commercial ships are exempt. A ban on paint containing copper takes effect in 2020.
If you’d like to know how much copper was in my samples, just ask. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org