Clean Lake Tip: Adopt-a-Drain

We don’t often give surface water much thought on its journey after it enters a storm drain–out of sight, out of mind. But the health of the waters going through storm drains is intrinsically tied to the health of all of our waters. It’s a common misconception that storm drains usually lead to wastewater treatment plants. In reality, most of this water is directly discharged into nearby waterbodies, and in the Lake Champlain basin, that means it eventually winds up in the lake. Before runoff enters a storm drain, it can pick up a wide range of pollutants and nutrients from the streets, fields, and sidewalks it flows over. 

One way you can help improve the water quality of stormwater runoff is by cleaning storm drains if they are part of your roadway infrastructure. These drains, particularly during periods of spring rains and snowmelt, can become clogged with trash, sediment, and leaves and other organic matter. When runoff is prevented from entering the storm drain, it is spending more time on the streets collecting pollutants. Organic materials that clog storm drains also leach phosphorus into the water, which feeds cyanobacteria blooms.

Follow the tips below to clear a storm drain. 

  • Start by gathering your materials. Depending on the material that collects around drains near you, you should use a rake, a broom, or a shovel; a trash grabber if you have it; gloves (longer rubber gloves are best); a traffic cone; a hi-vis safety vest; and a pail or yard waste bag. 
  • If you have the traffic cone, place it on the road-facing side of the stormwater drain in an area visible to motorists.
  • Then clear out the area around the storm drain. There’s no need to tinker with the grate; if there’s a problem with the drain itself, contact your municipality to take a look at it. 
  • Once you’ve gathered waste into your bag or pail, separate it into three categories and place it in the appropriate receptacle: trash, recyclables (glass and plastic bottles, cans) and compostables (leaves, grass clippings, sticks, and sediment). Sediment collected in the spring is not compostable, as it contains chemical residue from deicers used over the winter. Put it in the trash. If there is an especially high amount of sediment near your drain, notify your municipality, as this may be an indicator of a bigger problem.

It’s best to check in on your storm drain(s) every month or so, or before and after heavy precipitation. When drains aren’t aren’t clear for storms, there is a higher risk of floods.Iif you live in participating areas in Vermont, you can sign up for Adopt-A-Drain to see “adoptable” drains near you and receive regular reminders to check your drain. They even let you name your own drain! If your community is not covered by Adopt-A-Drain, contact the program here to expand to your community; or follow the Adopt-A-Drain protocols on your own.

LCC’s Education & Outreach Associate Eileen Fitzgerald is the proud “parent” of four storm drains in Burlington. “It takes about 15 minutes every month to clear out the storm drains before heavy rains,” notes Eileen. “Seeing the drains (named Momo 1-4) working better during storms and helping prevent runoff from pooling in roads is an easy, hyper-local way to be an active steward for water quality.” 

Whether you sign up formally or just tidy up the storm drains near you when you can, you’ll be helping keep Lake Champlain a little cleaner by keeping drains clear.