Error message

Image resize threshold of 10 remote images has been reached. Please use fewer remote images.

When It Rains, It Pours: The Effects of Stormwater Runoff

When It Rains, It Pours: The Effects of Stormwater Runoff

What we can do about the pollution from stormwater runoff

The lovely smell that follows a spring rain as you sit on your porch and enjoy the sound of drips pattering on the lawn is so loved that it has earned the distinct honor of its own word: “petrichor”. Somewhat less romantic is the source of the smell: a mix of plant oil and bacterial by-product. Despite that, when I was young, living in Conesus, New York, I learned to love rainy days. There is something especially relaxing about being inside while the sky outside is unleashing millions of gallons of water onto the earth.

But rain is also synonymous with sadness and difficulty; for good reason. Rain, in all of its forms, causes billions of dollars in damage in the US every year. And every time it rains, all of those millions of gallons of water that tumble onto the ground need to go somewhere—and not all of it soaks into the soil below our feet. All that water that rolls off of your roof, through your yard, and over the street is called stormwater runoff. This runoff is incredibly good at picking up whatever it comes into contact with as it travels downward to the lowest elevation. Dirt, nutrients, trash; storm water does not discriminate. By some twist of fate, the nutrients that it picks up as it travels actually cause significant damage to the surrounding ecosystem.

I spent much of my life growing up in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where beautiful bodies of water are home to thousands of species and allow for all sorts of recreation— boating, swimming, fishing, you name it. But whenever it rained the stormwater would flow over farms and pick up manure and fertilizer as it traveled down to the lakes. These nutrients would then feed seaweed and phytoplankton living in the lake that make swimming and recreating much less enjoyable. The growth of this plant life due to runoff not only damages the picturesque quality of the lake, but also boxes out other important native species from growing in a healthy way. This phenomenon is called eutrophication.