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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on place-based stewardship education. Since 2001, a partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department (KNRD) has supported this newsletter and allowed us to expand class offerings through EPA funding. Further staff support comes through Renewable Resources Extension Act (RREA). Our newest partner, sponsor of the Rain Garden Challenge, is the Pend Oreille Conservation District. Many thanks to our partners and to you, our readers, for your continued enthusiasm for "digging" into the natural history and culture ofthis part of the world.

Stormwater and our Habitat

by Kathleen Werr
Pend Oreille County Conservation District Salmonid Recovery Coordinator

Stormwater pollution is one type of “non-point source” pollution – that which comes from many diffuse sources instead of one point or clearly identified source. Stormwater will pick up any pollutants in its path created by our everyday activities. Some of these pollutants can cause problems in very small amounts.

Pollutants in stormwater may include: antifreeze, grease, oil, and heavy metals from cars; fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals from gardens, homes and businesses; bacteria from pet wastes, livestock and failing septic systems; and sediment from construction sites, poorly maintained roads, timber harvest, or any activity near waterways which disturbs the soil and removes vegetation.

Grass clippings and leaf litter that get dumped along a stream bank, drainage ditch or storm drain release nutrients that are carried by stormwater directly into the aquatic environment and can cause unwanted growth of algae and reduce the oxygen levels in the water. This can harm fish and other aquatic life. Fertilizers and phosphates can cause algae blooms (explosive growth of algae suspended in water). When these blooms occur, oxygen levels in the water are reduced. With the reduced oxygen level, aquatic life dies. Pesticides also can kill aquatic organisms directly and even accumulate in sediments and tissues of fish and other organisms.

If not properly managed, the sheer volume of stormwater runoff can flood and damage homes and businesses, flood septic system drainfields, erode banks and stream channels, and damage or destroy fish and wildlife habitat. When less water soaks into the ground, drinking water supplies are not replenished and streams and wetlands are not recharged. This can lead to water shortages for people and inadequate stream flows for fish.

Any of these consequences can pose serious problems for the wildlife dependent on our waterways as well as for peo- ple who live near polluted rivers, lakes and streams. Some wildlife and aquatic life can survive or adapt to living in polluted conditions, while others will not be able to exist.

Some fish are very sensitive to any change in the stream environment. Human activities can permanently alter fish habitat by damaging water quality and delivering sediment into the stream, changing water temperature, degrading instream and riparian habitat, and altering the natural flow of rivers and streams.

The erosion of sediment into rivers and streams can be especially detrimental to fish and other aquatic life that need gravel and rocks to spawn and rear their young. Erosion caused by construction and other soil disturbing activities introduces fine sediments that clog the spaces between rocks and gravel in streams, bury the eggs laid in these spaces, and prevent flowing water and oxygen from reaching the eggs and newly hatched fish. Sediment can also fill in pools that fish use for rearing and spawning, as resting areas during migration, and as a refuge to avoid temperature and flow extremes.

Water with high sediment loads can block sunlight, affecting the ability of aquatic plants and those that feed on them to survive. Murky or muddy water also decreases visibility, which can hamper the ability of fish to find food. Another way that sediment can cause damage to fish is by clumping onto their gills and impairing their ability to breathe properly. As the sediment settles at the bottom of a river, it can create thick layers, suffocating fish eggs as well as bottom dwelling organisms. In addition, sediments also can carry and store toxic pollutants and nutrients that can poison habitat when oxygen levels drop.

In short, poorly managed stormwater runoff can disturb habitats for fish and aquatic animals, cause a decline in fish populations, limit water recreation activities and decrease or limit property values.

But wait... each one of us can make a difference, especially in Pend Oreille County where most of us are not far from a creek, river or lake. By observing where the water goes during a rainstorm on your property, you can identify problem areas and take action.

Capturing rainfall before it reaches streams, ditches, and stormwater drains helps protect our waterways, one property at a time.

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