Cities proactive in keeping drains clear

As rain pours onto city streets, parking lots and sidewalks, the water washes over the ground, taking anything in its path on a ride to a storm drain. Along with pesticides and pet waste, the stormwater also picks up yard clippings, branches and leaves left along the curb.

City of Florence street sweeper
City of Florence, SC

The result: Pollutants washing down city drains into waterways, clogged drains backing up and causing damaging flooding, and leaves left to rot in a storm drain releasing nutrients that cause algae blooms and fish kills.

Cities around the state are working to combat the problem by being proactive.

For many, one of the first steps involves educating and engaging residents, some of whom may have never given a thought to what is pouring down storm drains every time it rains.

City officials can encourage simple actions, such as suggesting that residents compost yard waste and leave grass clippings on their lawns as a natural fertilizer, or asking them to consider bagging yard waste to keep it from washing into a storm drain.

In Rock Hill, residents can order a YardCart from the city. Similar to a garbage roll cart, the brown carts are intended for grass clippings and other loose yard debris. Automated trucks empty the YardCarts at the curb each week along with garbage and recycling materials.

The City of Anderson recently installed storm drain markers on city-maintained catch basins. The markers read "Dump No Waste – Drains to Creek" along with a number to report illegal dumping or needed maintenance, said Adam Cromer, the city’s stormwater manager.

Anderson also has created an adopt-a-storm drain program. The program’s first phase has been informing residents about the program by placing educational materials in utility bills and spreading the word on the local television channel and through social media and garbage cart notices, Cromer said.

"We plan to engage community groups and neighborhood associations in the coming year for volunteers to monitor and remove accumulated debris from storm drains along city streets," Cromer said. "We will provide volunteers with instructions on how to care for the storm drains in their neighborhoods.

"Our hope is that residents will take ownership of their neighborhoods by preventing garbage, leaves and debris from entering our local waterways through the storm drainage system," continued Cromer. "We also plan to map adopted storm drains and track the maintenance performed by volunteers."

Along with volunteers, the city sends crews on a regular basis to inspect and clean out city maintained stormwater drains plus it provides pollution prevention training to all city employees who have the potential to impact stormwater quality in their jobs.

Volunteers collected litter around Memorial Waterfront park
Forty volunteers collected roadside litter and removed 538 pounds of debris from freshwater
and marsh areas around Memorial Waterfront park at the base of the Ravenel Bridge.

Photo/Robbie Silver Photography

The Town of Mount Pleasant also has an education program to teach residents and landscapers about proper debris management and uses social media, direct mail and the town’s website to spread the word.

Several cities, including Anderson and Mount Pleasant, recently began a partnership with Clemson University’s Carolina Clear program, which provides a local, regional and statewide comprehensive approach to inform and educate communities about water quality, water quantity and the cumulative effects of stormwater. Carolina Clear addresses the special significance of South Carolina’s water resources and the role they play in the state’s economy, environmental health and overall quality of life.

While educating the public about the importance of keeping storm drains clear is a top priority, it is not the only strategy cities are employing.

"The most important practice is preventive maintenance of the stormwater collection system," said Michael Hemingway, utilities director for the City of Florence. "Once the rains begin to fall, it is way too late to fix a problem or even stem the tide of a developing issue."

"Specifically, having a schedule for preventive maintenance and adhering to it is critical," he continued. "Scheduled ditch maintenance and clearing, routine street sweeping, and regular monitoring of hot spots or trouble locations are typical ways to stay on top of maintenance.

"Also, knowing what we have is critical," Hemingway explained. It is important to have the areas the city is responsible for (as opposed to the county or SC Department of Transportation) mapped properly and have staff trained and knowledgeable of the areas.

In Anderson, Cromer suggests cities inventory the storm drainage system infrastructure and develop an inspection and maintenance program. He also recommends cities make note of the areas prone to flooding during heavy rains, so they can be on a more rigorous maintenance schedule.

Florence’s stormwater maintenance work group performs routine maintenance and cleaning of storm drains, ditches and outfalls. That work is done by street sweeping, weed eating and clearing ditches, manually removing debris and sediment from gutters and storm drain grates, and physically removing plant material from outfalls and ditch and driveway tiles, Hemingway said. Florence also employs an illicit discharge inspector to investigate complaints of yard waste dumping.

The Town of Mount Pleasant also has several programs that keep the storm drains clean and help keep pollutants out of nearby marshes and waterways.

"We ask our residents to be a part of the solution to pollution and to reduce flooding by keeping drains, gutters and ditches along their property clean and clear," said Hillary Repik, Mount Pleasant’s stormwater manager.

A local ordinance requires residents to put yard waste such as grass clippings and leaves in brown paper bags at the curb, helping to keep those items out of the drain following a rainfall. The debris is collected each week by the town’s sanitation department and sent to the landfill for composting. By using paper bags, plastic is kept out of the compost pile, explained Repik.

Other ways Mount Pleasant keeps its storm drains free flowing?

Town crews check and clean grates in flood prone areas during rain events. A hydro-excabator truck uses high power water jets and a vacuum system to remove debris that gets into inlets and pipes. Water quality separator vaults collect debris that gets into the systems—and those are cleaned at least twice a year—and a drainage canal maintenance crew clears debris from the main ditch systems.

Town officials plan to increase inspections next year and add a second drain cleaning crew and truck the following year. The town’s extensive program for keeping storm drains clear resulted in workers removing 835 tons of material just last year, Repik said.

Mount Pleasant, like many other cities, also sweeps the streets in its primary road system. Street and highway sweeping is becoming increasingly recognized as an important step to remove stormwater runoff pollution and is considered a best management practice under the EPA Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

Florence’s Stormwater Operations Division sweeps major arteries and heavily traveled roads, while secondary and residential streets are swept on an as-needed basis. Sweeping the streets reduces the sand and pollutants that enter the draining system causing blocked pipes and poor water quality in nearby waterways.

"It’s important to keep storm drains clear and clean for multiple reasons," said Hemingway. "First, they cannot operate and perform as designed if they are clogged, broken or caved in. This could lead to flooding, which could cause property damage or vehicle accidents."

"Second, the presence of clean storm drains and gutters gives a good message to the public," Hemingway explained. "If there is sediment, debris, trash, yard waste, etc. collecting in our stormwater conveyances, it gives the impression that Florence is messy, dirty and unprepared for rain events."

"While we want our stormwater collection system to be ready for storm events, we also want a clean city," Hemingway concluded. "Perception is reality, especially in the eyes of residents, visitors, prospective businesses and those looking to relocate."