These days just about every city or town in Tennessee has to have a special permit related to stormwater. Stormwater is runoff from a rainfall, and the part that goes into those ubiquitous road drains is of particular interest because those drains are direct lines to natural waterways. In heavy urban areas stormwater can be just as polluted as the water coming into a sewage treatment plant but it doesn’t get treated before ending up in the river.
Stormwater falls into an EPA permitting program called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, generally known as NPDES. NPDES covers A LOT of different pollution sources and you pretty much have to be a specialist to understand all the in’s and out’s of the program, but the important thing for the moment… A few years back nearly every Tennessee city and town of any size was required to get a permit for their stormwater systems (some larger industrial sites and other entities had to get their own permits as well). The permit requires the municipality to do its best to improve the quality of the storm runoff. This involves things like litter programs, street sweeping, filters in curb drains, and endless other possibilities. Cities that have programs for curbside pick-up for fall leaves or grass clippings may even get to count that since it keeps organic pollutants out of natural waterways.
Most municipal NPDES stormwater permits require a certain amount of money be spent on public education. The idea being that if people know what types of behavior cause pollution they’ll quit doing it. The earliest efforts involved obvious things like making sure people knew those road drains go to the river because their was a common belief that the road drains went to the sewage treatment plant. These days towns are getting creative with the public education component. Farragut (suburb of Knoxville) has one of the more creative outreach and education efforts that I’ve heard about in Tennessee. One of their programs invites local artists to decorate rain barrels which are then sold to the community. The watershed signs you’ve probably seen on interstates throughout Tennessee are part of TDOT’s NPDES mandated public education efforts rather than simple government waste as some people think.
It remains to be seen just how successful the public outreach and education programs are. I’m a bit skeptical, but I did get a free rain gage with Memphis Stormwater Department’s logo on it…