How to Clean Up Our Water
Ten Simple Ways You Can Help Reduce Pollution and Runoff
Everyday household activities contribute to water pollution. When it rains, fertilizer from lawns, oil from driveways, paint and solvent residues from walls and decks and even pet waste are all washed into storm sewers or nearby lakes, rivers and streams -- the same lakes, rivers and streams we rely on for drinking water supply, boating, swimming and fishing. Also, improper handling of materials around the house can lead to pollution. Here are some ways you can help reduce your impact on waterways.
In Your Yard
1. Decrease impervious surfaces around your home. Having fewer hard surfaces of concrete and asphalt will reduce runoff from your property. Landscape with vegetation, gravel or other porous materials instead of cement; install wood decking instead of concrete, and interlocking bricks and paver stones for walkways. Redirect rain gutters and downspouts away from buildings and to rain barrels and gardens, soil, grass or gravel areas. Planting vegetation at lower elevations than nearby hard surfaces allows runoff to seep into soil.
2. Use native plants and natural fertilizers. Native plants need less water, are more tolerant of drought conditions, cost less to maintain and provide habitat for birds and butterflies. Apply natural fertilizers and soil conditioners, such as compost, peat, rotted manure, and bone meal to stimulate plant growth and retain soil moisture. You can create your own compost; compost bins are widely available for purchase, or you can make your own. Composting decreases the need for chemical fertilizers, helps soil retain moisture, and diverts waste from landfills. If you don't know how to compost, visit The Compost Resource Page or the EPA's composting pages.
3. Don't over-water lawns and gardens. According to the EPA, "nationwide, landscape irrigation is estimated to account for almost one-third of all residential water use, totaling more than 7 billion gallons per day." Most obviously, limit irrigation to vegetated areas -– prevent overspray onto sidewalks, driveways, and street curbing. Avoid sprinkler irrigation on steep slopes and narrow strips that cannot be watered efficiently. Know how much water your lawn is getting by using a rain gauge to track precipitation and match the amount of water you apply to the actual needs of your variety of turf. For non-turf areas, use slow-watering techniques, i.e. trickle or "drip" irrigation systems and soaker hoses, which are 20 percent more efficient than sprinklers. Over-watering lawns not only wastes water, but can also increase the leaching of fertilizers into groundwater. Watering before the sun comes up, or after it sets, will also decrease the amount of water lost to evaporation.
In Your Home
4. Recycle and dispose of all trash properly. Never flush non-degradable products -- such as disposable diapers or plastic tampon applicators -- down the toilet. They can damage the sewage treatment process and end up littering beaches and waters. And make sure to properly dispose of all pet waste from your property to keep it out of storm drains and water supplies.
5. Correctly dispose of hazardous household products. Keep paints, used oil, cleaning solvents, polishes, pool chemicals, insecticides, and other hazardous household chemicals out of drains, sinks, and toilets. Many of these products contain harmful substances -- such as sodium hypochlorite, petroleum distillates, phenol and cresol, ammonia and formaldehyde -- that can end up in nearby water bodies. Contact your local sanitation, public works, or environmental health department to find out about hazardous waste collection days and sites, or check Earth911.com for local recycling options. If a local program isn't available, request one. Additionally, incorrect disposal of pharmaceuticals and personal care products leads to the presence of pharmaceutical residues in our waterways and, ultimately, our drinking water. To keep pharmaceuticals and personal care products out of waterways, never flush them down the toilet. The best way to dispose of these items is through "take-back" programs where drugs are returned to a facility that can dispose of them properly. Contact your local health officials or household hazardous waste facility to find out what options exist in your region.
6. Use nontoxic household products whenever possible. Discarding harmful products correctly is important, but not buying them in the first place is even better. Ask local stores to carry nontoxic products if they don't already. For examples of safe substitutes for environmentally harmful household products, check EPA's Greener Products website.
Maintaining Your Car
7. Recycle used motor oil. Don’t pour waste oil into gutters or down storm drains, and resist the temptation to dump wastes onto the ground. A single quart of motor oil that seeps into groundwater can pollute 250,000 gallons of drinking water. If you don't have a place to recycle used motor oil in your community, ask your local sanitation or public works department to create one. Check Earth911.com for local recycling options. When you buy motor oil, ask if the store or service station has a program to buy back waste oil and dispose of it properly. Keep up with car maintenance to reduce leaking of oil, coolant, antifreeze and other hazardous fluids.
8. Be "green" when washing your car. Skip the home carwash. Take your car to a professional –- professional carwashes are required to drain their wastewater into sewer systems, where it is treated before being discharged. This spares your local rivers and bays from the brake fluid, oil and automotive fluids that could otherwise contaminate your water. Many carwashes also recycle their wastewater, and use less than half the amount of water of a home carwash. Ask around to find a carwash that practices wastewater recycling. Alternatively, you can "wash" your car at home using a waterless carwash product.
In Your Community
9. Help identify, report and stop polluters. Join a local clean water or environmental group that monitors industries and sewage treatment plants that are discharging wastes. Local groups can be effective working together with state environmental agencies, EPA and national groups like NRDC to ensure that industries comply with regulations. To find a local clean water organization in your area, contact the Clean Water Network or Waterkeeper Alliance.
10. Be an activist. Educate yourself about water issues in your community. Find out where and how decisions are made about investments in projects and programs to protect your water and the rates and charges you pay for water and wastewater service. Contact your public officials and attend hearings to encourage them to support laws and programs to protect our water. Ask officials to control polluted runoff, ensure protection for wetlands and other aquatic ecosystems, reduce the flow of toxics into our waterways, and strengthen enforcement. Volunteer for a beach or stream clean up, tree planting, water quality sampling, or stream pollution monitoring project sponsored by a local environmental group or watershed council. Visit NRDC's Action Center to learn about urgent issues you can get in involved in.
last revised 8/22/2012
Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter
Water on Switchboard
NRDC experts write about water efficiency, green infrastructure and climate on the NRDC blog.
Recent Water Posts
- Climate Preparedness Task Force Should Use Water Infrastructure Funding to Protect Communities from Climate Risks
- posted by Ben Chou, 4/11/14
- Fracking in the Bakken threatens Missouri River watershed health
- posted by Marcus Griswold, 4/9/14
- Waiving Environmental Protections in the Bay Delta: Bad News for Fishermen, Water Supply, and BDCP
- posted by Doug Obegi, 4/3/14
NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs
- Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
- Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
- NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.