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Columbia Business Monthly

Columbia and other cities attempt to educate the public about water pollution

Nov 09, 2018 09:25AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Reba Hull Campbell

Hurricane Florence brought a renewed focus on water resources recently. Too often, residents may take for granted that clean water will run from the faucet and waste will flow efficiently and safely. Cities all over the state are taking a closer look at how they manage their own water and stormwater resources.

The City of Columbia, like other municipalities, is required to offer educational outreach as part of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.

A municipal separate storm sewer system — known more commonly as an MS4 — must meet public education and outreach requirements to satisfy the conditions of its NPDES stormwater permit. 

"Municipalities have a great deal of flexibility in choosing exactly how to develop and implement this particular control measure to meet their NPDES permit requirement,” said James Pinkney, an external affairs official in the EPA's Region 4 office in Atlanta.

"Therefore, in developing the public education and outreach program, municipalities can vary the degree and complexity of this program component to effectively address local water quality concerns."

For the dogs
In Columbia, as in other cities and towns, residents have a wide range of awareness about their role in controlling water pollution. For example, there are often misconceptions about the issues caused by pet waste to a city water system.

More than 6,000 dogs and cats are registered with the animal control department that serves the City of Columbia and Richland County. Dog waste — like herbicides, insecticides, oils, and grease — is "nonpoint source" pollution because it doesn't come from a single source, such as a discharge pipe. 

Pet waste carries bacteria, parasites, and worms that pollute waterways, potentially sickening people, pets, and wildlife by transmitting diseases and releasing excess nutrients into the water, which cause toxic algal blooms. A single dog produces almost a pound of waste every day.

"It's been eye opening dealing with pet owners because you've got one side that is really conscientious and another side that either assumes that it's good for the grass, like horse manure — which is not the case — or just don't want to worry about it," said Jennifer Satterthwaite, utilities communications coordinator for the Columbia.

Neighborhood listservs and social media chronicle a host of frustrations and misconceptions about the efforts to keep pet waste and other pollutants from washing down storm drains. 

For instance, in Columbia, residents may rake their leaves and other yard trimmings into a heap at the curb to be swept up by the city. But when dog walkers drop a bag of waste on top of a curbside leaf pile, they unknowingly scuttle that entire leaf pile's pickup because the waste cannot be mulched.

Civic investment
It's difficult to categorize a typical offender, which means it can be difficult to customize stormwater education efforts for a specific audience.

"You have to remember there is a pretty large chunk of our population that's transient," says Satterthwaite. City workers have observed that college students have been some of the more careless residents when it comes to disposing of their dogs' waste. It's a tendency that could have something to do with students' status as temporary residents who may plan to move away after graduation.

But even very young school children seem to have a lot to learn about the importance of keeping pet waste out of the environment.

"When I've been to schools speaking with younger kids, very few of them knew about this," says Nell Orscheln, utilities communication coordinator for Columbia. "I was surprised by that."

In contrast, Satterthwaite and Orscheln encountered an older woman who said her husband "does his rounds." He walks through the neighborhood disposing of any pet waste he sees.

"Older generations may be more engaged in citizenship," says Satterthwaite.

Saving water
While safe, clean water is vital, so is making sure there is enough to go around. Back in April, Columbia officials challenged residents to pledge a change in habits in order to reduce water consumption.

Pledge takers participating in the Wyland National Mayor's Challenge for Water Conservation committed to a number of actions and habits, such as fixing leaky toilets, taking shorter showers, only sprinkling the lawn before 8 a.m. to ensure the water is absorbed instead of evaporated, and using refillable water bottles instead of disposable ones.

Other measures are less obviously tied to water but still help reduce water usage or protect water quality. For instance, avoiding food waste means easing the demand on farming and livestock operations, which consume substantial amounts of water.

"You can do as little or as much as you want to do,” Mary Pat Baldauf, Columbia sustainability facilitator, says about the challenge. “We just jumped in and embraced it a little more this year."
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