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How street art can help keep waterways clean and clear of trash

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

I’m strolling down Main Street in Northport, a nautical, perhaps quintessential, Long Island village that comes complete with bay views and the scent of sea spray in the air. A friend across the street calls my name just as I’m making the difficult decision of whether or not I should enter a candy shop selling some tempting saltwater taffy.

As I prepare to cross the street to greet my friend, I look down and notice something else: A round green-and-blue sticker slapped onto the sidewalk, adjacent to a rusting storm drain. The sticker, decorated with a fish silhouette and ocean waves, reads “NO DUMPING – DRAINS TO BAY.”

Most people are aware of why storm drains exist: to preventing roadway flooding. But, do you what happens to the water they collect? For convenience’s sake, the water drains collect is sent by pipe directly to the nearest waterway…untreated. So, when trash and pollutants—like used motor oil, road salts, fertilizers and pesticides, pet waste or soaps—collect in storm drains, they too, stream into waterways where they can poison or entrap wildlife, and deteriorate aquatic ecosystems.

Trash in a storm drain. Credit: Paul Swansen
Trash in a storm drain. Credit: Paul Swansen

Over my years living on Long Island, I’ve noticed these little stickers on sidewalks in many of the region’s villages and towns. But I haven’t given them much thought, other than considering them a kind of utilitarian street art: Being art, human eyes are naturally drawn to them. The county officials who install them hope those eyes will see the stickers and behave in an environmentally friendly manner.

Such street art may be the way to cleaner water. In several municipalities, concerned citizens are making storm drain markers more visually appealing, more attention grabbing and thus hopefully more effective, making people think twice before tossing their cigarette butts or soapy water onto the ground. One major way they’ve done this is by holding storm-drain design competitions, like that recently judged by Kansas City Water Services (KCWS) in Kansas City, Missouri.

Kansas City Water Services was looking for innovative ways to educate the public on water quality that would involve our citizens in the process,” says Brooke Givens, media relations coordinator at the utility. “This competition allowed us to reach out to the community to get different perspectives on how an educational message should be presented.”

KCWS sent out a call for artists in 2014, and announced a winner this January after a panel of artists, designers, educators and community members scrutinized the 50 designs entered in the competition. Instead of stickers, KCWS sought a more permanent kind of reminder: new steel manhole covers that sit atop storm drains. In making their final design decision, Givens explains that the judges “were looking for art that would translate well onto a manhole cover (stamped into metal), resonate with the general public and each the message that all streams are natural resources that need to be protected and eventually lead back to someone’s water source.”

In the end the judges chose a joint-entry created by Kate Corwin, president and founder of Green Works in Kansas City, a youth environmental education and workforce development organization, and Michael Buster, a local Kansas City artist. Their design includes critters that all rely on clean water to live—a turtle, fish and frog—and an important message: “Think – Protect your water, protect our home.”

Kate Corwin and Michael Buster's winning manhole cover design. Credit: KC Water
Kate Corwin and Michael Buster’s winning manhole cover design. Credit: KC Water

“I hope it catches [people’s] attention. I hope it helps them think,” says Corwin. “I also hope they begin to understand that the trash that goes on the ground, the car fluids that end up on the ground, the fertilizer that washes off of our lawns, that all of it goes down into our rivers and creeks and streams.”

In all, 100 manhole covers with Corwin and Buster’s design will be produced and installed in areas with high foot traffic. The first of these covers have just been installed. Givens says KCWS may produce additional covers or hold more design campaigns in the future if this new manhole cover design is well received.

Other municipalities that have recently held design competitions for creative storm water drain markers include Goshen, Indiana, and Hoboken, New Jersey. Some municipalities distribute free storm drain marker kits to citizens who want to help keep waterways clean.

It’s important to remember, however, that polluted storm water can find its way into waterways in ways other than down storm drains. Runoff after rainstorms carries water, bacteria and trash down streets to waterways or permeable soils. So, while dumping trash or pollutants into storm water drains directly pollutes waterways, littering anywhere has a negative effect on a region’s water quality.

As part of the National Aquarium’s 48 Days of Blue campaign, which spans the 48 days between Earth Day and World Oceans Day on June 8, you can find daily challenges to benefit the seas on the aquarium’s website and we’ll be incorporating one challenge per week into our blog posts.

One challenge this week: Stencil a Storm Drain! Check out the website of your local public works or natural resources department to see if they distribute storm drain marker kits or allow citizens to stencil art on storm drains. Also help spread the message about storm drains and how dumping trash and pollutants into and near them can harm the environment.