Students work to make area more river-friendly

by Rob Kuznia

About 10 University students armed with door hangers and stencil pens strolled through St. Paul campus neighborhoods Saturday to combat an underestimated problem: non-point source pollution of the Mississippi River.
Few people know that when the last of the Twin Cities’ sewer systems were divided into two parts — storm sewers and sanitary waste sewers — in 1996, daily activities like mowing the lawn and raking leaves contribute more pollution to the Mississippi River than any other factor.
While sanitary waste water gets treated, water from storm sewers flows directly into the river. So every spilled grain of fertilizer on a sidewalk and every drop of spilled oil in a driveway washes into the sewer into the street and flows directly into the Mississippi.
“A lot of people think sewage from factories is the largest source of pollution, but it’s not,” said Friends of the Mississippi member Brooke Crowe. “Things like litter, grass clippings and leaves are much harder to control.”
Since the last of the new storm sewers were installed, every inch of rainfall brings about 488 million gallons of polluted water into the river. Of the non-point-source pollutants, leaves and grass clippings pose the biggest threats to the river.
Grass clippings extract nutrients, which cause serious pollution problems when mixed with water. And in the fall, leaves blowing down the street in the wind pick up heavy metals and other pollutants before ending up in storm sewers.
The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group and Friends of the Mississippi provided simple solutions for such contributors to a complex problem: Keep grass clippings off the street, rake leaves more than once a year and don’t put any of it near storm sewers.
While each individual’s responsibility is simple, creating awareness is difficult, said Crowe.
“Of course, most people would never want to pollute the river,” Crowe said. “The problem is, they just don’t know about the problem at all, until they receive a door hanger or drive by a stenciled sewer.”
Friends of the Mississippi aided MPIRG in a joint quest to educate residents in the St. Paul campus area. The group stenciled messages near sewage drains such as “please don’t pollute the river.”
To better explain the stenciled messages, they hung informational flyers about non-point-source pollution on the doors of nearby houses.
Friends of the Mississippi is a nonprofit organization funded by the Department of St. Paul Sewer Utilities. While this is the first time MPIRG has been involved with the educational walk, this was just another day’s work for the Friends of the Mississippi.
If Friends of the Mississippi is to continue to receive the grant from the city, they must distribute at least 12,000 door hangers, stencil at least 2,800 storm drains and recruit at least 1,300 volunteers to combat point-source pollution every year.
The quota is a product of the Clean Water Act of 1993.
“The specific methods are not mandated by law,” said Anne Webber, director of Sewer Utilities. “But you need to have some type of education program. We’ve found that stenciling is good because it’s more active.”