Russian River watershed protection campaign focuses on keeping storm drains for rain only

The new regionwide Streets to Creeks campaign aims to raise awareness about the need to keep to keep trash and contaminants out of storm drains.|

Safeguarding the Russian River watershed

See for more information about the campaign.

Most people pass by storm drains day in and day out, giving little thought to them as conduits to local waterways - and ultimately, the Russian River in much of Sonoma County.

An alliance of local cities, special districts and the county wants to change that.

The coalition has launched a regional campaign to raise public awareness about the link between surface streets and local creeks in hopes people will think again about allowing litter, pet waste and other pollutants to escape down the drain and into the Russian River watershed, home to salmon and steelhead trout and a wide range other aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.

The $60,000 Streets to Creek campaign is intended to promote the fact that storm drains are basically extensions of creeks and streams. Anything left on or in the street - dripped motor oil, pesticide residue, discarded trash or cigarette butts - is basically left to be washed into the river.

“There is surprisingly little awareness about where storm drains actually flow to,” said Andy Rodgers, executive director of the Russian River Watershed Association, a stewardship group formed in 2003 by Sonoma and Mendocino counties, eight cities and the Sonoma County Water Agency. “There’s a number of folks who have the impression that all water goes to the wastewater treatment plants. Other people don’t really think about where it goes.”

Case in point: On Aug. 10, three people living in a motorhome were caught by a neighbor emptying a 50-gallon tank of raw sewage into a storm drain in Santa Rosa’s Junior College neighborhood.

Police arrested the trio and had the sewage cleaned up before it could leave the site. But the incident highlights the vulnerability of the storm drain system. It built to handle rainwater runoff and should handle little else.

“We really want people to know this water is not treated,” said Elise Howard, communications coordinator for the city of Santa Rosa. “It’s going straight to our creeks.”

The city of Santa Rosa alone has more than 338 miles of storm drain, as well as more than a hundreds miles of creek, said Nick Sudano, senior environmental specialist for storm water and creeks.

“It doesn’t take long in our city, once something gets into the storm drain, for it to actually reach some creek or stream,” he said.

The multimedia Streets to Creeks campaign is intended to provide cohesive messaging throughout the region while targeting four particular habits that are known to be a source of water pollution and contamination but which can be easily addressed by a willing public, Howard said.

They include picking up dog waste and getting it in the trash bin before irrigation or rain can transport it and the bacteria it contains from the yard to the gutter and into the storm drain.

Any car washing ideally should be done at a commercial car wash, where the used water is captured and recycled, officials said. If car washing is done at home, used soapy water should be disposed in a sink or allowed to soak into the ground, in a lawn or a planter strip.

Experts say gardeners and landscapers should keep one eye on the weather, using herbicides and fertilizers only when they know they won’t get washed into the streets. People tending to yards need to watch out for leaf debris, compost, mulch and other materials, as well, sprinkler over-spray and irrigation runoff, they said.

Lastly, trash needs to be disposed of properly and not allowed to blow into the storm drain or thrown in the gutter, they said.

“Simple changes make a big impact,” Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Victoria Fleming, a member of the Russian River Watershed Association board, said in a written statement. “This will be a multi-year effort to increase our community’s connection with our beautiful creeks and change behaviors to reduce creek pollution.”

The campaign was initiated by the city of Santa Rosa before the North Bay fires diverted attention away from it for more than a year, Sudano said.

When it was finally developed, it was done so with partners in the watershed alliance. They include the cities of Cloverdale, Cotati, Healdsburg, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Ukiah, Windsor, the two counties and the Sonoma County Water Agency.

Rodgers said residents would see messaging through billboards, social media, streaming music sites, public service announcements on the radio and in movie theaters, “so it’s really being shared widely and in as many outlets as make sense.”

The timing for the launch coincides with “rain readiness” season, Sudano said, noting that last year’s first rain arrived Oct. 2

“Part of being rain ready is understanding that all our storm drains lead directly to the creeks,” he said.

Said Rodgers, “You know, there’s just not a lot of understanding that if there’s a piece of trash in the street, that if storm water were to carry that to the storm drain, it would end up in the creek. So knowing that, somebody may be less apt to drop that cigarette butt or that gum wrapper or whatever that is. Because I think people do enjoy the waterways in the Russian River area and associating with the fact that what they do in an urban environment or actually anywhere in the watershed it will end up in places they enjoy or appreciate or recreate, they might think twice about it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

Safeguarding the Russian River watershed

See for more information about the campaign.

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