Program illustrates differences between storm drains and wastewater systems

By Morning Star Vasquez, Staff Writer

The quiet little city near the beach is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. Pollutants collect in gutters and on streets, and when it rains they gradually make their way into the storm drains, where they eventually flow to the ocean. The disaster plays out over and over in local classrooms, as part of an educational program developed by the Healdsburg Public Works Department.

The Public Works staff visited local classrooms this spring, with a diorama - a miniature plastic city inside a plexiglas case - that illustrates how storm water collects pollutants. The diorama contains a toy city, complete with water, wastewater, and storm water systems.

The educational program is designed for elementary school children to illustrate the difference between drainage and wastewater systems and the proper way to use them for a cleaner environment and a healthier wastewater system.

The goal of the program is to educate youngsters with the hopes they will spread the word to their family members, neighbors and friends about what not to dump down the garbage disposal and what not to allow down the storm drain on the street, with drainage that eventually leads to the Pacific Ocean.

"People have no idea what we do," said Mac McArthur, Public Works operations and maintenance manager. "This is a small community and we all have ownership. It is our resource and we should protect it. Not only is Public Works held accountable for pollutants running into the river, but it is important for us to be proactive out there in the community," said McArthur.

The program, "Only Rain Down The Storm Drain," is geared toward fifth and sixth graders using fun and interactive materials and a simple curriculum that illustrates the do's and don'ts of each system.

The program also explains the difference between the storm water system, which collects runoff from rainfall, and the wastewater system, which collects and treats sewage from homes and businesses. Children learn practical tips, such as disposing of cooking grease, coffee grounds and egg shells in the trash and not the garbage disposal, because they clog up the sewer system.

"Every drain in their home is part of the sewer system, not just the toilet. It teaches where the sewage is going, how it gets to where it is going and then what happens to it afterward. Every home is connected to a wastewater plant," McArthur said.

Grease is the worst offender in the sewer system, according to Chris Monti, a utilities operator and participant in the program. It causes the most damage to the system because it solidifies like concrete, restricts the size of the sewer pipe and can eventually cause manholes to overflow with untreated sewage.

With the aid of the diorama, the staff teaches children where rainfall goes after it runs down a storm drain. Monti or other Public Works staff members, such as Tina Linbergh, place dark drops of dyed water on areas of the diorama to illustrate harmful waste, like oil leaked from cars or soap from a car wash. Then a button gets pushed and the rain begins. Slowly the harmful waste begins to pick up and empty into the storm drains, and the water in the ocean slowly begins to yellow.

Through this illustration, the staff hopes to teach that the content in Healdsburg storm drains feeds directly through an underground system into Foss Creek, then into the Russian River, and ultimately to the ocean. "Phosphates from soap deplete the oxygen in water and fish die," McArthur said. "Wastewater systems are treated, but there is no treatment for storm drains," he said.

The program also includes tips on disposing of household waste, pet droppings, and more. It includes games and activities to teach children about wastewater and storm drain systems.

So far, fifth graders and sixth graders at Healdsburg Elementary have been presented with the program and, according to McArthur; it has been a success. The Public Works staff also set up the demonstration at the Healdsburg Future Farmers Country Fair.

Along with the educational program, throughout the city, Public Works has installed about 500 blue steel placards inscribed with the words "No Dumping - Drains to River" over catch inlets all over the city. According to McArthur, many children have already noticed them on their streets.

For the next school year, the group intends to bring the program to more schools in Healdsburg, including Alexander Valley and West Side Schools. "It's been fun. I have my toilet jokes all lined up," McArthur said.

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