How One Man Accidentally Added to the Watershed Pollution Problem
By Abby Henderson
It’s a blustery winter day in the Pacific Northwest. Gary is a construction worker. He wakes up early so he has time to grab an extra hot coffee while filling up with gas on his way to the construction site. It warms him up and gives him the boost he needs. He gets his job done like clockwork.
The construction site manager is very happy because Gary’s team meets their deadline. Gary grabs his lunch pail, clocks out, and leaves work tired. He’s ready to go home, have dinner, and relax.
He forgets one thing though. His coffee cup from the morning, along with his plastic lid and plastic stirrer. It’s sitting on the concrete floor where Gary left it. He doesn’t know there will be a rainstorm tonight that will melt the snow on the ground. It will cause a winter flood. His cup and straw will end up washed away into the watershed. They will be added to the millions of pieces of plastic and other garbage in our one world ocean.
What Is A Watershed?
When referring to the environment, a watershed is any land area that collects water. Water ends up channeling to creeks, rivers, streams, and finally to outflow locations. Examples of outflow locations are reservoirs, bays, and the ocean. Water can also soak into the soil where it seeps into a stream or underground aquifers. If the soil is too hard for the water to soak in, it becomes run-off water. This water finds its way to lower ground and into our water system.
When the rain came down and collected Gary’s cup, plastic lid and plastic stirrer they flowed down to a nearby stream. The stream flowed to a river. The river led to the ocean. This is only one isolated incident. But plastic waste and pollution are being added to our watersheds every day in a similar manner.
This is an example of what scientists refer to as nonpoint source pollution. It is different from source pollution. Source pollution is the direct contamination of waterways. For example, a factory pouring waste straight into a riverbed. It is more intentional. Nonpoint source pollution comes from a myriad of sources and is usually not done on purpose. Rainwater and snowmelt collect nonpoint source pollution into our watersheds.
Non-point source pollutants that find their way into our watersheds include:
● Motor oil
● Plastic garbage
Why Is Watershed Pollution a Problem?
Water in our watersheds is what we use for everything. We use it for drinking, growing the food we eat, cleaning ourselves, and powering industries. The threat that runoff pollution poses is one of the biggest to our aquatic ecosystems. These pollutants go into waterways and, in turn, into our oceans. Once the water is contaminated it is extremely hard to decontaminate it. Gary’s plastic lid and stirrer will break down over time into thousands of tiny pieces called microplastics. These pieces are so tiny that they then become part of ocean wildlife’s food. That means if you eat seafood, there’s a good chance you are ingesting plastic!
Climate Change and Watershed Flooding
So, are watershed floods like these becoming more common? Drawing a straight line from climate change to increasing flooding is hard to do. Floods are caused by so many varying factors. But research has suggested there is a connection. The IPCC ─Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ─ did a special report on extremes. They noted it is clear that climate change “has detectably influenced” water-related variables. These variables, like rainfall and snowmelt, lead to more floods.
Do Warmer Climates Lead to Heavier Precipitation?
Did you know that a warmer climate holds on to more water? It’s true. And more water leads to more rainfall when it does rain or snow. In regions with seasonal snowmelt — like where Gary lives — the warmer temperatures will cause warm rain to fall. When warm rain falls on snow we get spring and winter flooding. That’s because the soil during these times of the year is often high in moisture or even frozen. When water is unable to absorb into the soil it becomes run-off water. Run-off water then picks up all pollutants in its path and brings them into the watershed.
Impact of Flooding on the Environment
Floods have lasting and immediate effects on humans, animals, and the environment. With more and more flooding, you may wonder what negative consequences flood pollution is having on our environment.
Some of the impacts of flood pollution:
● Trees are uprooted by forceful water flow.
● Sediment and silt destroy farm crops.
● Rivers erode, becoming wider and causing further deposition.
● Natural habitats are desolated by floodwater.
● Polluted floodwater distributes pollution into the watershed.
● Riverbanks and levees are destroyed, leading to even more flooding.
Water-Cycle Pollution and How It Affects Us
So how do we piece this all together? We learned that watersheds are areas of land that contain water. And the water is all connected, one body of water flows to another. Science has given us facts to conclude that floods are increasing due to climate change. So every time a flood happens, like it did where Gary lives, the water in the watershed gets more and more polluted.
If you leave garbage by a creek it doesn’t stay there. It flows into the stream, then the ocean, and becomes part of our food source. If you leave old jugs of oil or unattended toys in your yard, what happens when a flood washes them away? They become a part of our water cycle. Nature works together in a wonderful and harmonious way. One ecosystem depends on another. The piece of plastic pollution we leave behind is not someone else’s problem. It becomes part of our ecosystem and thus a part of our own lives.
What Can I Do to Prevent Watershed Pollution?
Now the point of this wasn’t to criticize Gary. He made an honest mistake. One we’ve all no doubt made. No one is perfect. If Gary had remembered to pick up his cup, lid, and stirrer, would the water pollution problem be gone? No. The problem of water pollution is bigger than you, me, or even Gary. Thankfully, no man is an island unto themselves. By working together, we can improve the world.
Every time you make sure your garbage is disposed of properly you are helping the health of the planet. By choosing to educate yourself on the effects of buying and using plastic goods you can be part of the change. You are moving towards kinder choices for our environment. You don’t need to get rid of every plastic item in your house overnight. That would be wasteful. But the next time you are considering the purchase of a single-use plastic item do a search first and see if there is an alternative. Great alternatives are being made all the time.
Subscribe to the Ocean Blue Project blog for more ideas about great ways you can be part of the difference. Please share posts like this one so you can educate your circle of friends.
And if you see Gary, please remind him to throw away his cup next time! You might recommend he read helpful posts on the Ocean Blue Project blog during his lunch-break as well. Wink! Wink!
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ─ Margaret Mead
Author Bio: Abby Henderson is a freelance copywriter who lives in Washington State with her husband and two children. She loves the indoors as much as the outdoors… Reading, writing and all things creative.