Countdown To Earth Day: What YOU Can Do To Stop Stormwater Runoff, Water Pollution (PLUS: A Fun Experiment!)

Countdown To Earth Day: What YOU Can Do To Stop Stormwater Runoff, Water Pollution (PLUS: A Fun Experiment!)

  • The Kane County Board Energy And Environmental Committee, Kane County Division of Environmental and Water Resources and Kane County Connects are teaming up for a “Count Down to Earth Day” series celebrating the success stories and spotlighting the environmental challenges we face right here, right now in Kane County, IL. Today’s essay is written by Kane County Environmental and Water Resources Engineer Anne Wilford and supplemented with a fun experiment idea was contributed by Jessica Mino, Kane and Kendall County program director for The Conservation Foundation.

According to the Water Environment Federation, stormwater is the only growing source of water pollution in many watersheds across the country — and it happens way too often here in Kane County, IL.

With urban populations expected to grow to nearly 70% by 2050, and more frequent and intense storms occurring across the country, there is ever-increasing pressure on stormwater systems and water infrastructure.

Scroll down to find out what can YOU do to improve the water quality before the runoff reaches our lakes, rivers and streams. But first, here’s a little primer on stormwater runoff.

What Is Stormwater Runoff?

When it rains or the snow melts, the water that flows over the land is called stormwater runoff. If the rain falls on undeveloped land, much of the water can soak into the ground. If the rainfall lands on impervious surfaces, such as streets, driveways, sidewalks, parking lots and roof tops, it does not have a chance to infiltrate or get soaked up into the ground.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as much as 55% of stormwater runoff in urban areas is unable to soak into the ground.

As it flows, the runoff picks up pollutants like bacteria, chemicals, pesticides, animal waste, oils, sediment or even garbage. The runoff eventually makes its way to our lakes, rivers and streams.

What happens to that stormwater runoff before it finds its way to a body of water?

  • Sometimes the stormwater is collected and transported in storm sewers before making its way to a body of water.
  • In many rural communities, the stormwater may be conveyed through an open channel system, such as roadside ditches.
  • In older urban communities, the stormwater might be collected in what is called a Combined Sewer System. Combined sewer systems collect sewage and stormwater runoff into one sewer, which transport both the sewage and stormwater to a Wastewater Treatment facility for treatment prior to discharge. However, with these combined sewers, when the volume of the sewer waters exceeds the capacity of the system, such as in a heavy rainfall event, the combined wastewater might be discharged with little or no treatment into a community’s lakes, rivers or streams.
  • Stormwater controls designed by engineers are now used in construction and development to filter out many of the pollutants right on-site, before entering the sewer system and our lakes, rivers and streams.

What YOU Can Do To Stop Stormwater Pollution

Here are few things you can do to help with stormwater pollution:

Try This Experiment

The information above mentioned things that we can do in our everyday lives to reduce pollution associated with stormwater runoff. Here’s a home experiment to get the whole family thinking about stormwater runoff.

What is happening as the runoff picks up pollutants like bacteria, chemicals, pesticides, animal waste, oils, sediment or even garbage on its way to our lakes, rivers and streams?

As the runoff flows over land, it follows the drainage patterns, flowing from higher elevations to lower elevations. It enters the stormwater conveyance systems and eventually flows in streams, rivers, lakes and then the ocean.

This simple experiment demonstrates that runoff picks up pollutants before it reaches a body of water.


  • Piece of white paper. (The paper represents the land.)
  • Water-soluble color markers. (Choose a few different colors. The markers will represent different types of pollutants such as pet waste, fertilizers, chemicals and oils.)
  • Spray bottle of water. (This represents the rainfall.)
  • A pan or towel to catch the water.


  1. Draw and color on the piece of paper color with different colors of marker.
  2. Crumple the paper in a ball and then smooth it out, leaving some ridges. (These ridges represent the topography of the land.)
  3. Place the paper in the pan or on the towel. Try to angle the paper so one end is higher than the other. (The lower end represents where the water would be leaving the community to enter a body of water.)
  4. Spray the paper with water and watch the water flow across the paper.


  • How was the water’s color different at higher elevations versus the lower elevations?
  • Did the colors blend together in the flowing water?
  • Think about your back yard. When it rains are there different pollutants that the water could pick up? Where does the stormwater runoff flow to?
  • Think about what you want to do clean up the runoff from your back yard. Is it time to scoop the poop? Could you pull those weeds in the garden instead of spraying?

More Teaching Opportunities

Looking for other opportunities to teach the family about stormwater runoff pollution? Try these websites:

Read The Countdown To Earth Day Series