A big challenge to getting folks to care about the damage caused by polluted stormwater runoff is helping them understand what the heck it is and where it goes in the first place.

And it appears there’s a lot of work to be done on that front. An informal survey by Eric Eckl at Water Words That Work, a Virginia company that works on water-related communications, sought some answers about stormwater understanding.

CSO diagram_King County

The survey found that people understand and prefer the term “storm drains” over “street drains” or “storm sewers.” And it found that those surveyed had a vague idea about where the runoff that pours off of streets, roofs, and parking lots goes (answers included “goes into the sewer?” and “The water moves through the pipes to wherever it drains out.”).

But perhaps the most telling responses came with the third question, which asked “Do you recall ever giving this matter any thought before?”

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  • Survey says:

    • No: 54%
    • Yes: 46%

    Hmm. That’s not so good considering polluted runoff is the No. 1 source of oil and grease and other nasty junk that’s fouling Puget Sound and many other waterways. It floods homes and businesses with filthy water. Thanks to the legacy of combined sewer systems (see illustration above), it sends massive volumes of raw sewage into the Sound, the Coquille River in southwest Oregon, the harbor in Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula, and Portland’s Willamette River.

    But some municipalities and nonprofit groups are working to raise awareness. Portland has a downspout disconnection program to cut the amount of water that flows into its sewer system, Seattle touts its SEAStreets projects that control runoff by helping it soak into the ground, and Puyallup is helping homeowners build rain gardens to curb stormwater.

    Now how to make “bioswales” resonate with the public…


    Quick update (Dec. 7 12:45 p.m.): Here’s a quick two-page primer on stormwater and low-impact development language, as developed by the Portland area’s Metro Regional Language Bank.


    Hat tip to stormwater guru Teresa Huntsinger with the Oregon Environmental Council for sharing the survey info from Water Words That Work as well as the Metro Regional Language Bank document.

    Combined sewer overflow illustration is provided by King County.