by Celicia Boyden and Stefan Bengtson
“An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot.”
~Douglas Adams, on how to make something invisible
This is how we used to deal with water quality. If we wanted to get rid of something unpleasant like sewage or industrial waste, we would simply flush it downstream. It became somebody else’s problem. This approach to planning and design is behind many of the water quality issues we face today. It reflected a historic lack of knowledge of the causes and impacts of water pollution, as well as a lack of understanding that yesterday’s dumping causes today’s issues and today’s choices become tomorrow’s problem. Now though, we understand those links. We’ve regulated industrial discharges. We’ve learned that dilution is not the solution to pollution. We know that we need to protect our waters if we want to drink from them, swim in them, or fish in them.
August is National Water Quality Month and a reminder that we’re all guardians of our water. It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s a reminder of the progress we have made since the days of unregulated industrial discharges with the Clean Water Act in 1972. It’s also a reminder of the work we have left, and the impact of the choices we make every day. Because clean water doesn’t just happen. It takes work.
How does water get polluted?
Imagine you’re a drop of rain. You fall from the sky and land on a grocery store parking lot, a factory, a home, or a farmer’s field. You interact with whatever is there: vehicle fluids, trash, the dog feces that didn’t get picked up, fertilizers, etc., and you carry it downhill into a catch basin and a river. Over time, more and more raindrops pick up more and more of the vehicle fluids, trash, dog feces, and fertilizers and bring them into the river. And then, as the land around the river has more parking lots, more homes, and more agriculture, the river becomes less and less usable for much other than being a dump.
What do we do?
Water quality is a lynchpin of so much of what we do at Fuss & O’Neill. We work where the land meets the water, using natural systems to remove whatever came from those parking lots, homes, and industrial sites. We help protect water supply reservoirs by addressing pollution hotspots before they reach the reservoirs. We reduce bacteria-related closures at beaches by removing pollution from stormwater before it reaches the beach. We monitor industrial sites for compliance with their water quality permits and remediate places with historic contamination. We design these measures to fit seamlessly within and enhance the built environment around them (Check out our blog “Stormwater Management – Where Beautiful Design Meets Practical Application”). Most importantly, we learn from the past to create more sustainable and resilient communities.
What can you do?
It’s important to remember that water quality is everyone’s responsibility.
- Put your litter in a trash can. Every year, Fuss & O’Neill staff help clean up their neighborhoods, public parks, and nearby rivers. We have removed hundreds of tires, thousands of soda cans and bottles, chip bags, diapers, and other litter, including bicycles and a cash register (no money inside, just an eel).
- If you have a dog, it’s important to scoop the poop. It’s just as important to put the poop in a trash can, not a catch basin. It’s important for a municipality to provide trash cans and empty them regularly.
- If you fertilize your lawn, consider using a slow release formula. Always follow the directions for when to apply fertilizer (not right before a rain storm) and how much to apply. Consider seeding your lawn with a low-maintenance grass like fescue, rather than Kentucky bluegrass or perennial ryegrass, which require more nitrogen and phosphorus. Consider also seeding with plants that help pollinators, like clovers and other native plants.
- Maintain your septic system. Septic system failures leach into our lakes and rivers. Kevin Flood, PE wrote a blog (“Water System Efficiency”) with some tips on how to maintain your septic system.
- Recognize that cost is not the only constraint in responsible design. It is possible to nestle your project within the built environment in a way that minimizes its environmental impact.
We’re making strides, but water quality is a shared responsibility. If you have any questions about best practices or would like to know how to improve water quality in your town or state, please contact us!
About the Authors
Celicia Boyden, EIT, MS is a Water Resources Engineer based out of the company’s Providence, RI office. Celicia draws on her applied science and engineering-based education to implement ecological improvements throughout New England. Her projects are focused on stormwater management, flood mitigation, habitat restoration, and water quality improvement.
Stefan Bengtson, MSc, MESM is an Environmental Scientist in Fuss & O’Neill’s Water and Natural Resources Business Line. His principal areas of expertise include watershed management, water quality monitoring, GIS analysis, and statistical modeling. He has also led field crews in wetland monitoring and ecological research. He is familiar with climate change GIS data and modeling tools developed for Massachusetts and Rhode Island.