Texas elementary school students learn about uncommon sources of water pollution and prevention.
The cities of Cibolo and Schertz, Texas, like many suburban cities, are required to obtain a stormwater permit from the state. The permit, called a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit, requires cities to limit discharges of harmful pollutants through a variety of techniques. One of those techniques is educating the public about the types and sources of pollutants. Many are unaware of the various seemingly harmless sources of pollution. That awareness is a critical part of the solution to limiting pollutant discharges.
Cities’ efforts to educate the public takes many forms, including pamphlets in water bills and articles in newspapers and magazines. However, one of the more effective tools is outreach at local elementary schools. Conveniently, third and fourth grade students in Texas begin studying the water cycle in the spring every year. The water cycle describes the natural process by which water is evaporated or transpirated (water vapor emitted by plant material) into the environment.
You may recall learning as a young student that the beginning of the circle is with evaporation through condensation or rain, then runoff, and ultimately into the oceans where the process begins again. The focus of cities’ education is on the runoff portion of the cycle and the pollutants that are transported away from a city by this process. While the focus — runoff — is only one piece, the need for responsibility is underscored by the children’s understanding that the process is a circle, which means pollution is not a problem that goes away.
This spring, Lockwood, Andrews, and Newnam, Inc. (LAN), a planning, engineering, and program management firm, prepared the MS4 school assemblies on behalf of the cities of Cibolo and Schertz. Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District (SCUCISD), the local school district, partnered with the cities to host these events. Teachers at the schools were excited and eager to have engaging content that expands and integrates into the classroom lessons.
Concepts that were taught during the assemblies included sources of pollution such as floatables and debris, chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizers. Many of the students, and the teachers present at the events, were shocked to find out that pet waste is a significant source of pollution.
The runoff that Schertz and Cibolo produce enters the Lower Cibolo Creek, which has been determined as an impaired water body by Texas. The impairment or substandard water quality comes from higher than acceptable levels of bacteria concentrations that can be traced to the pet waste from these suburban communities.
This is one example of how a seemingly harmless waste is a pollutant. Many of those in attendance were aware of oils, pesticides, and fertilizers as sources of pollution but very few considered the bacteria that comes from pet waste as a significant pollutant.
Having now identified that pet waste and the bacteria they carry as a source of pollution, the students were taught to carry home a message that picking up pet waste is important for many reasons, and one of them is water quality.
Another lesson that the children learned was the threat of Escherichia coli (E. coli) and how it affects water quality. Coming from the intestines of warm-blooded animals, E. coli is a potential source of infection and, in rare cases, certain strains can be life threatening for at-risk populations such as the elderly, sick, and the young.
E. coli further damages water quality for the aquatic ecosystems that thrive on oxygen dissolved in the water. When dissolved oxygen is maintained at high levels, mussels, fish, and microbes that live within the moist soil at the bottom of the creek or river system thrive. When deprived, the ecosystem begins to break down, the natural balance of predator and prey is broken, and the stream health begins to decline.
This fragile system is often overlooked by people who engage in recreational and fun activities along the intermittent water-filled banks of the Lower Cibolo. Several students noted that they have visited the Cibolo either to walk along its banks or as one of the many recreational fishers near the City of Schertz’ Crescent Bend Nature Park. Creating connections and gaining awareness is powerful to increasing the local knowledge on the causes and effects of pollution.
Also, very few students realized that lawn clippings and leaf litter are a source of water pollution. When incorrectly discarded, these sources of pollution cause a decline in dissolved oxygen in the water as they are consumed by decay. While it may not affect water quality, these sources of pollution also become a nuisance at low-water crossings, culverts, and within storm drains. And they have the potential to clog these systems and cause unintended ponding, or in the worst cases, flooding.
After overcoming the giggles that inevitably followed while talking about pet waste, the students were then told that “their teachers didn’t tell them that there would be a quiz during the event.” After the initial sighs and complaints, the students were relieved to find out that the “quiz” was multiple-choice answers and interesting facts about the damage pollution creates. The students then engaged and raised their hands eagerly to talk about what they knew.
During this session, we also talked about the estimated cost to taxpayers for eliminating stormwater pollution. Since many students and adults find large dollar values un-relatable, we used LEGO Death Stars and LEGO Disney Castles as metrics. Most, if not all of the students, recognized these were special sets that were more expensive than their everyday toys. By the end, the students discovered that it costs $4 billion annually (based on estimates by Kansas State University) to clean-up stormwater pollution, which is more than enough money to buy LEGO sets to fill four, two-story family homes from bottom to top!
The message the cities are sending in these assemblies is that we all play a small part in a bigger global community. Most children and adults are unaware of the Great Garbage Patch located in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. Ocean currents sweep plastic debris into the area where little to no current exists. Much of the plastic debris comes from ocean crossing ship traffic and portions of it come from discharges from land at bays and estuaries along the coasts adjacent to the Pacific. Once exposed to sunlight, the plastics begin to become brittle, breaking into infinitely small pieces.
During the presentation, the children were dismayed to find out that the plastics don’t decay. They were alarmed when they found out that, at the molecular level, the fish swimming through these debris fields unknowingly ingest the plastics. Picking up trash, particularly floatables, and preventing them from being transported by runoff and recycling them is the only way to prevent this source of pollution.
As an example, the children were shown a photo taken in nearby New Braunfels along a popular river that is inundated by tourists each summer. Many of the children realized they have done this themselves and have unknowingly floated through similar debris. So powerful was this message that some of the students raised their hands with excitement to point out how they have placed trash in the John boats placed along the rivers.
Stormwater pollution is unsightly, it prevents our ability to play or recreate in the water, and impacts the aquatic life that call our water bodies home. To protect our water resources for future generations, increasing public awareness and taking actions that prevent stormwater pollution are imperative. Public education events such as the ones in Schertz and Cibolo are a small step in that direction.
Justin Murray, P.E., is a project manager at Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc. (www.lan-inc.com), a planning, engineering, and program management firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.