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Spring cleaning for our homes and our rivers

Storm drains like this one connect directly to rivers and lakes. Anything that goes down this drain goes directly to a local waterway. Photo courtesy of the Cannon River Watershed Partnership

Kevin Strauss is the Cannon River Watershed Partnership community engagement coordinator.

The next time you're outside, take a minute to look at the street in front of your house. If you live in town, the metal storm drain by your house carries water from the road to your city's storm drain system. As Minnesota communities paved their streets in the early 1900s, they also installed sewer systems, now called "storm sewer systems" to drain the rain that used to turn streets into lakes. Initially, both household sewage from bathrooms and street rain runoff ran through these underground pipes to a nearby river or lake. But raw sewage can pollute area waterways. So in the mid-1950s and 1960s, most communities installed a "sanitary sewer system," a separate set of pipes that connect your house to your city's wastewater treatment plant. That treatment plant cleans sewage and releases clean water into our rivers and lakes.

The good news is that our rivers and lakes are now much cleaner than they were in the 1950s. The downside is that city runoff pollution can still flow into our rivers and lakes through the storm sewer system, since those pipes still flow directly into our waterways. Here are some things we can do to keep our rivers clean.

Outdoor cleaning: If you plan to clean your grill, windows, patio or driveway, be mindful of what you're sending out into the street (and the river). Whenever possible, wash windows so the soap and "gunk" drains to the lawn, not the street. If your project will drain to the street, use a power washer or hose to clean windows and pavement with just plain water.

You can also keep stormwater cleaner by sweeping up at sand or salt left over from the winter and disposing of it in the garbage or by putting it into a bin and reusing it next year.

Car washing: In Minnesota, between street salt in the late spring and gravel road dust in the summer, we have lots of reasons to wash our cars. The most river-friendly way to wash your car is to take it to a carwash. Wastewater from the carwash goes to the Faribault wastewater treatment plant to be cleaned before being released into the Cannon River. If you'd prefer to wash your car at home, you could prevent runoff pollution by parking your car on the grass and washing it with soap and water, or by washing it with plain water on the driveway. Either option keeps soap from flowing into our storm sewers and area rivers.