Stormwater Education: What's the Big Deal About a Candy Wrapper?

Municipalities use a children’s book in educational outreach programs to explain how nonpoint pollutants entering storm drains can flow all the way to the ocean.
Stormwater Education: What's the Big Deal About a Candy Wrapper?

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In the book All the Way to the Ocean by Joel Harper, James tosses a candy wrapper to the curb.

“Hey, what are you doing?” his best friend, Isaac, asks. “Did you just drop your wrapper into the storm drain?”

“Yeah, what’s the big deal?” James says.

“It’s a big deal because these drains go all the way to the ocean, just like the sign says,” explains Isaac, pointing to the stenciled warning: “No dumping. This drains to ocean.”

So begins Isaac’s lesson in nonpoint pollution. He learns how rain washes contaminants such as food wrappers, motor oil and pet waste into storm drains that flow to lakes, rivers and eventually all the way to the ocean.

James’ mother explains how pollutants harm the environment and contaminate drinking water, prompting the boys to ask their teacher if they can help reduce waste by picking up trash around their school.

“Good idea!” Isaac says. “Maybe the whole school can pitch in.”

Lifetime lessons
More than a children’s story, All the Way to the Ocean has been adopted by municipalities as part of education outreach programs. Together with schools and nonprofit organizations, communities such as Santa Maria, Calif., Sugar Land, Texas, and Kitsap County, Wash., have successfully spread the word about stormwater runoff.

The City of Santa Maria introduced its All the Way to the Ocean reading program in 2009, working in partnership with Science Discovery and meeting with teachers. The book was presented to K-6 students as part of a combined program that includes in-class education and field trips to local parks where students discover how stormwater affects local steams, creeks, ponds and lakes.

The city also raised awareness through the placement of metal disks and curbside messages reminding residents that, “This storm drain leads to waterway.”

Other outreach campaigns funded through the city include Our Water – Our World, a training program presented at local retail stores each year, while the newest program targets pet waste.

“We take a poll when we do local events and ask people where they think pet waste is a problem,” says Kristine Jacobs, utilities outreach coordinator. “We’re also handing out pet waste bags that clip on your belt loop.”

The utility participates in about 16 annual community events each year and reinforces its stormwater message with bus wraps, radio and TV advertising, as well as brochures distributed to residents.

Keep Sugar Land Beautiful, a 501c3 nonprofit organization established by the City of Sugar Land, Texas, includes Harper’s book in its Planet Earth carts, wooden bookcases filled with about 500 publications donated to local elementary schools, grades K-5.

“It’s one of the only books I have found that addresses nonpoint pollution directly,” says Vicki Gist, Keep Sugar Land Beautiful executive director. “A lot of other books mention it in passing when they’re talking about clean water, but I think Joel’s goes straight into what happens when that cigarette butt is dropped on the ground. It lets people know that their storm drains are not going to a treatment facility but directly into waterways.”

KSLB also provides teachers with a copy of Harper’s book and works in partnership with the city to bring presenters into schools, like environmental entertainer Jack Golden.

“It’s my personal opinion that a number of approaches to education work better than just one,” Gist says.

KSLB works in partnership with the city to mark storm drains and place coaster-size door tags on homes in the neighborhood, describing how the drains work. There’s also contact information if residents have questions or want more information.

KSLB receives funding through grants, service contracts, sponsorships, fundraisers and in-kind donations, as well as from the City of Sugar Land.

“We have a stormwater account inside our general fund,” says Dawn Steph, assistant director of public works for the City of Sugar Land. “We have a set budget each year that we get to utilize for education outreach, enforcement, any new programs or initiatives based on our TCEQ [Texas Commission Environmental Quality] Small MS4 General Permit TXR040000.”

Pat Kirschbaum, education outreach coordinator for Kitsap County, uses Harper’s book as part of an interactive activity she presents in grades K-2 to help satisfy its NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit.

“I have a crawl-through tunnel,” she says. “I put a picture of a storm drain on one end and a picture of a stream on the other end. After I read the students Joel’s book, I have them pretend they’re raindrops. They go down the storm drain and see where they end up.”

Kirschbaum then hands students cards that display various pollutants — pet waste, fertilizer, leaking cars. As they crawl through the tunnel a second time, they drop the cards on the stream.

“When everybody’s gone through a second time I bring the picture of the stream over with all the cards on it and we talk about how one dog going to the bathroom isn’t a big deal, but because it all goes to the same place it adds up.”

Another outreach effort is Kitsap’s Mutt Mitt program that places doggie bag dispensers in public parks, as well as sponsored dispensers throughout the community.

“We provide the dispenser and an initial supply of bags; the community group or neighborhood group commits to providing garbage pickup and additional supplies of bags as needed,” she says.

Funding for Clean Water Kitsap comes through a stormwater fee — based on impervious surface area — charged to residential and commercial property owners in the unincorporated portion of the county.


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