This Leads to a Stream

Our Lives Depend on Protecting Fresh Water

We treat these back entrances to waterways like toilets. (Photo by author.)

While taking a walk one day, I saw a man dumping his pet’s poop into a storm drain. He said, “You see, I’m being responsible.”

Dude, that drain leads to a stream!

But I supposes this behavior is one notch up from the paint cans that get emptied by people who “don’t have time” to find out where to dispose of environmental hazards. And we’ve come a long way from Medieval times when folks tossed their sewage out the window.

This may not be a sexy story, but I can assure you that streams are very sexy.

Would you like to know more about them?

A diagram of a stream’s journey: splash, wiggle, and braid. (By author.)

The Journey

Streams start in the mountains, from snow caps, glaciers, and precipitation, following the path of least resistance to move down slope. From their source, they often drop in waterfalls and dance around rocks, loading up with oxygen and minerals to be shared downstream.

As the landscape becomes more gentle, the stream slows down, following a pattern of S-curves. The stream scrapes the bank on one side and deposits the soil on the other, supplying valley farmland with fertile soil.

Wildlife congregate around and in the stream. Salmon spawn, birds sip, land mammals catch fish. The ecology of this system depends on full, clear streams with stoney bottoms.

When the stream meets very flat land, it becomes sluggish and starts to braid, forming valuable habitat for birds and shellfish. This is where deltas are created and the stream, or river, meets the sea. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

At one point in the process of overbuilding, we started diverting rainwater into drains to get rid of it. Engineers were hired to protect our buildings from floods. Parking lots full of vehicles stood in the rain, releasing paint, metals, hydrocarbons, and dirt into the flow of water that swirled down the drains into catch basins and pipes that all converged at a stream, shooting the asphalt-warmed water out like a firehose.

World without pipes: rain enters the groundwater and up the trees, into the sky and streams. (By author.)

Now, in addition to these pollutants, the sheer power and volume of the stormwater discharge (the expression used to make rainwater sound evil) actually scours the streambed. This changes the profile of the stream and bleeds the groundwater. That means the reserves are wasted.

We should think of streams as exposed groundwater. (By author.)

When streams are scoured, they lose their ability to flow year round.

When nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus (fertilizers and animal waste) are loaded into streams, they foster too much plant life in the water. Anyone who has a lake house can tell you about the tall plants that invade the water because of poorly maintained septic systems.

Lakes and streams are connected parts of our fresh water systems.

When other contaminants, mostly from vehicle infrastructure like roads and parking lots, get into streams, they cause loss of life starting at the bottom of the food chain.

What we can do

How can we counteract this?

  • We can design our landscapes to make it easier for rainwater to infiltrate into the ground.
  • We can get rid of useless, polluting lawns and plant something beneficial in their place. Read more about lawns here in theLANDSCAPE.
  • We can rebuild streams to improve performance and create new ones.
This is a drainage ditch that I redesigned by widening the bed and adding stone. (Photo by author.)

They say, out of sight, out of mind, and that’s what we have today. We load rainwater into pipes and it becomes invisible.

I designed this pool at the outfall of a large pipe. The water rises and passes through the notch in the weir. It’s a stormwater management device as well as a landscape amenity. (Photo by author.)

Every property has unique opportunities to collect rainwater and enhance fresh water stewardship. Even piped systems can be interrupted before they get to streams, bringing the water back out into the open where we can see it, protect it, and make it better.

Our lives depend on it.

Mary Adelaide Scipioni is a Landscape Architect and Editor of theLANDSCAPE.

Multi-faceted creative person and currently obscure, passionate writer of novels under the name Mariuccia Milla.

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