Wastewater Advisor & Education
So, what is a Watershed?
A watershed is the area of land that drains into a body of water such as a river, lake, stream or bay. It is separated from other systems by high points in the area such as hills or slopes. It includes not only the waterway itself but also the entire land area that drains to it. For example, the watershed of a lake would include not only the streams entering the lake but also the land area that drains into those streams and eventually the lake. Drainage basins generally refer to large watersheds that encompass the watersheds of many smaller rivers and streams.
Humans have an impact on watersheds in a number of ways. One way people influence watersheds is by changing where stormwater flows. By changing the contour of the land and adding stormwater systems, people change how and where the water goes. The storm drains and catch basins you see along the sidewalks and streets lead to a system of underground pipes that drain directly to local waterways. So where the melted snowflake from your sidewalk goes may be down the storm drain through stormwater pipes and out to the local river.
Another way people affect a watershed is by adding potential pollution sources to the watershed. The type of pollutant a rain droplet might pick up on its way through a watershed depends in part on how the land it travels through is used. How the land in a watershed is used by people, whether it is farms, houses or shopping centers, has a direct impact on the water quality of the watershed. When it rains, stormwater carries with it the effects of human activities as it drains off the land into the local waterway. As rain washes over a parking lot, it might pick up litter, road salt and motor oil and carry these pollutants to a local stream. On a farm, rain might wash fertilizers and soil into a pond. Snow melt might wash fertilizers and pesticides from a suburban lawn.
To reduce this pollution of stormwater, it's important to practice pollution prevention. That means preventing pollution at the source, recycling motor oil instead of pouring it onto the street, cleaning up after pets, putting trash into containers rather than littering or reducing our use of fertilizers, pesticides and deicers.
What is the Water Cycle?
For millions of years, water has been used. It is constantly being recycled and reused. It is important to understand how water moves through the Earth's water cycle, which is defined as the movement of water from the Earth's surface into the atmosphere and back to the Earth's surface again.
When it rains, the rainwater flows overland into waterways or it is absorbed by the ground or plants. Water evaporates from land and water bodies becoming water vapor in the atmosphere. Water is also released from trees and other plants through "transpiration." the water vapor from evaporation and transpiration forms clouds in the atmosphere which in turn provide precipitation (rain, hail, snow, sleet) to start the cycle over again. This process of water recycling, known as the water cycle, repeats itself continuously.
What is Ground Water?
Where does the water that rains on your home go? After it leaves your lawn, street or sidewalk, where is it headed? Does it wander into a wetlands? Does it puddle in your backyard? Does it zip down a sink hole? If it soaks into the ground, it becomes ground water.
A sizable amount of rainwater runoff seeps into the ground to become ground water. Ground water moves into water-filled layers of porous geologic formations called aquifers. If the aquifer is close to the surface, its ground water can flow into nearby waterways or wetlands, providing a base flow. Depending on your location, aquifers containing ground water can range from a few feet below the surface to several hundred feet underground. Aquifer recharge areas are locations where rainwater and other precipitation seeps into the earth's surface to enter an aquifer. Contrary to popular belief, aquifers are not flowing underground streams or lakes.
Ground water moves at an irregular pace, seeping from more porous soils, from shallow to deeper areas and from places where it enters the Earth's surface to where it is discharged or withdrawn. A system of more than 100 aquifers is scattered throughout New Jersey, covering 7,500 square miles.
Why is Ground Water Important?
Ground water is the primary drinking water source for half of the state's population. Most of this water is obtained from individual domestic wells or public water supplies which tap into aquifers. New Jersey agriculture also depends on a steady supply of clean ground water for irrigation.
Ground Water Complications
Humans have an impact on ground water in a number of ways. One way people influence ground water is by changing where stormwater flows. By changing the contour of the land and adding impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots and rooftops, people change how and where water goes. When it rains, the stormwater in a developed area is less able to soak into the ground because the land is now covered with roads, rooftops and parking lots. Less ground water will be recharged and more water will flow directly into streams and rivers.
Another way people affect ground water is by adding potential pollution sources. How the land above ground water is used by people, whether it is farms, houses or shopping centers, has a direct impact on ground water quality. As rain washes over a parking lot, it might pick up road salt and motor oil and carry these pollutants to a local aquifer. On a farm or suburban lawn, snow melt might soak fertilizers and pesticides into the ground.
When properly used, the amount of ground water pumped out for human purposes is less than what nature supplies to recharge the aquifer. If overused, more water is pumped out than is recharged. With less ground water in the aquifer, it becomes more difficult to use and more susceptible to pollution and salt water intrusion.
Conserving water through efficient water use can help prevent pollution. Using less water reduces the runoff of agricultural pollutants pesticides and fertilizers. Diverting less water from waterways or aquifers leaves more water in streams or lakes, protecting existing ecosystems such as wetlands (which absorb certain types of pollution) and water supplies.
Water conservation can also save money by reducing pumping and treatment costs both before water reaches your home and after it leaves. Reduced water use may extend the life of existing sewage treatment facilities. It can also eliminate the need to develop a new water supply. New wells and reservoirs are expensive and time consuming to locate and build.
Urbanization & the changing of a Watershed?
Urbanization (or development) has a great effect on local water resources. It changes how water flows in the watershed and what flows in the water. Both surface and ground water are changed.
As a watershed becomes developed, trees, shrubs and other plants are replaced with impervious surfaces (roads, rooftops, parking lots and other hard surfaces that do not allow stormwater to soak into the ground). Without the plants to store and slow the flow of stormwater, the rate of stormwater runoff is increased. Less stormwater is able to soak into the ground because sidewalks, roads, parking lots and rooftops block this infiltration. This means a greater volume of water reaches the waterway faster and less of that water is able to infiltrate to ground water. This, in turn, leads to more flooding after storms but reduced flow in streams and rivers during dry periods. The reduced amount of infiltrating water can lower ground water levels, which in turn can stress local waterways that depend on steadier flows of water.
In the stream, more erosion of stream banks and scouring of channels will occur due to volume increase. This degrades habitat for plant and animal life that depend on clear water. Sediment from eroded stream banks clogs the gills of fish and blocks light needed for plants. The sediment settles to fill in stream channels, lakes and reservoirs. This also increases flooding and the need for dredging to clear streams or lakes for boating.
In addition to the high flows caused by urbanization, the increased runoff also contains increased contaminants. These include litter, cigarette butts and other debris from sidewalks and streets, motor oil poured into storm sewers, heavy metals from brake linings, settled air pollutants from car exhaust and pesticides and fertilizers from lawn care. These contaminants reach local waterways quickly after a storm.
Stormwater Sewer Basics
Stormwater flows into the stormwater system through a storm drain. These are frequently located along the curbs of parking lots and roadways. The grate that prevents larger objects from flowing into the storm sewer system is called a catch basin. Once below ground, the stormwater flows through pipes which lead to an outfall where the stormwater enters a stream, river or lake. In most areas of New Jersey, the stormwater sewer goes directly to local waterway without any treatment.
In some areas of the state, the outfall may lead to a stormwater management basin. These basins control the flow of stormwater and can also improve water quality, depending on how they are designed. These basins are frequently seen in newer commercial and residential areas.
In some older urban areas of the state, the stormwater and sanitary sewer systems may be combined. Here both stormwater and sewage from households and businesses travel together in the same pipes. Both stormwater and sewage are treated at sewage treatment plants except during heavy rains. During these occasions, both the stormwater and untreated sewage exceed the capacity of the treatment plant and this overflow is directed into local waterways.
Protecting Stormwater Sewers
In the first rush of water from a rainstorm, much of the debris and other pollutants that had settled on the land surface and in the stormwater sewer since the last storm will be picked up and carried into the local stream. This can significantly add to water quality problems. It is therefore important to protect the stormwater system from sources of pollution.
The following should never be dumped down storm drains, road gutters or catch basins: motor oil, pet waste, grass trimmings, leaves, debris and hazardous chemicals of any kind. Anything dumped in our stormwater collection systems will be carried into our streams.
Controlling Stormwater Flow
Managing stormwater to reduce the impact of development on local watersheds and aquifers relies on minimizing the disruption in the natural flow - both quality and quantity of stormwater. By designing with nature, the impact of urbanization can be greatly reduced.
This can be accomplished by following these principles:
- minimizing impervious surfaces;
- maximizing natural areas of dense vegetation;
- structural stormwater controls such as stormwater management basins and;
- practicing pollution prevention by avoiding contact between stormwater and pollutants.
You Can Make a Difference in Your Own Backyard
Managing stormwater in your own backyard is important. As an integral part of the watershed you live in, what you do in your backyard makes a difference. Here are some examples of what you can do at home:
- Reduce impervious surfaces by using pavers or bricks rather than concrete for a driveway or sidewalk.
- Divert rain from paved surfaces onto grass to permit gradual infiltration.
- Landscape with the environment in mind. Choose the appropriate plants, shrubs and trees for the soil in your yard; don't select plants that need lots of watering (which increases surface runoff), fertilizers or pesticides.
- Maintain your car properly so that motor oil, brake linings, exhaust and other fluids don't contribute to water pollution.
- Keep stormwater clean. Never dump litter, motor oil, animal waste, or leaves into storm drains or catch basins.
What is Nonpoint Source Pollution?
Nonpoint Source Pollution, or people pollution, is a contamination of our ground water, waterways, and ocean that results from everyday activities such as fertilizing the lawn, walking pets, changing motor oil and littering. With each rainfall, pollutants generated by these activities are washed into storm drains that flow into our waterways and ocean. They also can soak into the ground contaminating the ground water below.
Each one of us, whether we know it or not, contributes to nonpoint source pollution through our daily activities. As a result, nonpoint source pollution is the BIGGEST threat to many of our ponds, creeks, lakes, wells, streams, rivers and bays, our ground water and the ocean.
The collective impact of nonpoint source pollution threatens aquatic and marine life, recreational water activities, the fishing industry, tourism and our precious drinking water resources. Ultimately, the cost becomes the burden of every New Jersey resident.
But there's good news - in our everyday activities we can stop nonpoint source pollution and keep our environment clean. Simple changes in YOUR daily lifestyle can make a tremendous difference in the quality of New Jersey's water resources. Here are just a few ways you can reduce nonpoint source pollution.
LITTER: Place litter, including cigarette butts and fast food containers, in trash receptacles. Never throw litter in streets or down storm drains. Recycle as much as possible.
FERTILIZERS: Fertilizers contain nitrates and phosphates that, in abundance, cause blooms of algae that can lead to fish kills. Avoid the overuse of fertilizers and do not apply them before a heavy rainfall.
PESTICIDES: Many household products made to exterminate pests also are toxic to humans, animals, aquatic organisms and plants. Use alternatives whenever possible. If you do use a pesticide, follow the label directions carefully.
HOUSEHOLD HAZARDOUS PRODUCTS: Many common household products (paint thinners, moth balls, drain and oven cleaners, to name a few) contain toxic ingredients. When improperly used or discarded, these products are a threat to public health and the environment. Do not discard with the regular household trash. Use natural and less toxic alternatives whenever possible. Contact your County Solid Waste Management Office for information regarding household hazardous waste collection in your area.
MOTOR OIL: Used motor oil contains toxic chemicals that are harmful to animals, humans and fish. Do not dump used motor oil down storm drains or on the ground. Recycle all used motor oil by taking it to a local public or private recycling center.
CAR WASHING: Wash your car only when necessary. Consider using a commercial car wash that recycles its wash water. Like fertilizers, many car detergents contain phosphate. If you wash your car at home, use a non-phosphate detergent.
PET WASTE: Animal wastes contain bacteria and viruses that can contaminate shellfish and cause the closing of bathing beaches. Pet owners should use newspaper, bags or scoopers to pick up after pets and dispose of wastes in the garbage or toilet.
SEPTIC SYSTEMS: An improperly working septic system can contaminate ground water and create public health problems. Avoid adding unnecessary grease, household hazardous products and solids to your septic system. Inspect your tank annually and pump it out every three to five years depending on its use.
BOAT DISCHARGES: Dumping boat sewage overboard introduces bacteria and viruses into the water. Boat owners should always use marine sanitation devices and pump-out facilities at marinas.
As you can see, these suggestions are simple and easy to apply to your daily lifestyle. Making your commitment to change at least one habit can result in benefits that will be shared by all of us and add to the health and beauty of New Jersey's water resources.