YIMBY: Yes, In My Back Yard, Part II

Stormwater pollution and the greywater solution.

By Emily Votruba

You know the old environmental activist expression NIMBY — “Not in my backyard”?

It always bothered me a bit. If not in my backyard, then in whose?

What if everything did go through my backyard first? Wouldn’t that be a big incentive for me to make sure my life didn’t require toxic chemicals, inorganic fertilizers, and petroleum-based foaming agents?

I was surprised to learn during the Alliance for the Great Lakes beach clean-up this year that much of the small plastic and other garbage on the beach actually comes from storm drains, not from lazy beachgoers who don’t pick up after themselves. No, even if we had all majored in litterbuggery in college, we still wouldn’t be able to match what the storm drains bring in.

(Although, you should look up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a mass of plastic in the Pacific Ocean that has an estimated area between double the size of Texas to larger than the continental U.S. Check out www.theplastiki.com for more information.)

In addition to trash, overflowing storm drains are a huge source of excess nutrients and toxins in lakes. Pet waste, lawn fertilizer, motor oil, antifreeze, detergents, and organic matter — such as leaves and grass clippings — get flushed into the storm drains from streets and sidewalks when it rains.

In many places, storm drains feed directly into waterways, which means that, once chemicals and dog poop are on the street or sidewalk, there’s nothing to stop them on their inexorable, soupy journey into the nearest stream during the next rain.

On top of all that wastewater rushing into the storm drains from our roofs, driveways, sidewalks, and streets, we also have overflowing sewers and leaky septic tanks that are located too close to moving water — and yes, this happens “in our own backyard.”

Just last summer, a spill at the Frankfort and Elberta BLUA sewage treatment facility sent millions of gallons of sewage into the Betsie Bay, knocking out beach activity for a few days. What’s silly about these overflows is that an estimated* 50 to 80 percent of the water that goes down your drain and into the sewer doesn’t require intensive treatment: it’s what’s known as greywater — water you’ve used to shower, wash clothes, or do the dishes.

Why burn fossil fuels to clean water that doesn’t even have to go into the sewer in the first place? It seems like it would be a good idea to capture all this water — inside and out — and put it to better use.

The phosphates, nitrogen, and bits of organic matter that cause unhealthy algal blooms in lakes and streams are exactly the kind of thing your lawn likes. It’s free fertilizer!

*Art Ludwig, Parker Abercrombie, and Michelle Howard, Create an Oasis with Greywater (Santa Barbara, CA: Oasis Design, 2009).

Emily Vortruba is an editor of the newly reborn Elberta Alert. A recent transplant, she spends her time split between her house in Elberta and her boyfriend’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York. This is the second of a two-part series in which Emily explores how individuals can make easy cuts in their personal water usage.

This article is the first in a new series called The Water Column, as an on-going part of the first annual Benzie County Water Festival, an education and celebration event taking place March 18 through 20. For a schedule of events and more information — or if you’d like to learn how you can become a contributor to The Water Column — send aubreyannparker@gmail.com an email.

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