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Kids Get the Nonpoint Picture

August 1, 2001 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In the rising sun rays of an early May morning, lanky Joe Bartman drags the end of a sagging tape measure across the oil-smeared parking lot of the East Grand Rapids Fire Department. The temperature hovers comfortably around 70 degrees. Chalk-white puffs of cloud speckle the sky. And 12-year-old Joe explains offhandedly what happens when thunderstorms roll through this upscale community.

“When it rains,” he says, tugging the tape taut, “all the water mixes with pollution, runs off the ground, and goes in our lake.

“That’s another 50 feet,” Joe yells. Then, hooking the tape measure to his lips, he shouts, “Fish on!” and jumps and fights as his buddy reels it in. “I’m a bass. I’m a bass.”

It’s community service day for East Grand Rapids Middle School, and the town of 10,764 bustles with kids rushing around in oversized t-shirts that read: “The Solution Is You.”

Joe and his classmates, outfitted with clipboards and calculators, apply the mathematics lessons they’ve learned in school.

The students measure the rooftops, parking lots, and other surfaces throughout the area that repel, rather than soak up, water. Then, using the local average rainfall, they figure that the fire department complex alone sends more than 2.8 million gallons of stormwater rushing each year into nearby Reeds Lake.

Joe and his classmates are learning the same basic math that local government officials across Michigan are grappling with as sewage spills into local swimming areas and weeds grow so thick in lakes that homeowners spend thousands of dollars combating them with herbicides.

Every square foot of parking lot, rooftop, and road in suburbanizing areas displaces open farmland, woodlands, and wetlands that used to soak up rainwater.

Stormwater now rushes off service station lots, salt-covered roads, and heavily fertilized suburban landscapes and turns into raging, polluted torrents that gouge creekbeds and overwhelm street drains and sewer lines. All of it ends up in the nearest lake or stream, many of which are connected to the Great Lakes.

“If you have too many hard surfaces and no way to catch the water, you won’t be able to control the rain,” Joe says, hiking up his grassy-kneed jeans. “That pollutes our water and kills the fish.”

The seventh grader grasps the basic environmental problem that Michigan’s local and state leaders must now face.

At risk are taxpayers, who end up footing the cleanup bill, and communities, which lose out on the quality of life and development opportunities that clean water provides.

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