Our water is as clean as we make it

Every time you fertilize your yard or garden, mow your lawn, wash your car or walk your dog, you’re affecting the environment. Whether it’s a good impact or bad depends on what you do during those activities.

City of Tacoma officials who have the job of watching over surface water and stormwater management have very clear ideas on how the public can help the cause by being careful about what they leave behind or send down drains.

The city maintains more than 500 miles of public stormwater pipe, more than 22,000 catch basins, four pump stations and numerous water detention ponds or structures. That system carries water from streets, yards and driveways directly to lakes, streams, rivers and Puget Sound. And that’s why officials in the Environmental Services Department pay so much attention – and urge the public to do likewise –  to efforts focused on preventing pollution from reaching bodies of water.

Seemingly benign activities like working in the yard, keeping a car bright and shiny or exercising Fido can turn into significant causes of water pollution unless average citizens exercise some responsibility and environmental foresight. Here are some ways they can do that.



Everyone likes a yard with green grass, healthy plants and as few pesky weeds and insects as possible. That’s where pesticides and fertilizers come in. The Environmental Services Department asks that if you use them, go with environmentally-safe products. A prime example is TAGRO, the non-toxic, fish-friendly soil products produced by the city of Tacoma. TAGRO products are EPA-approved, award-winning, and return vital nutrients to the soil while recycling waste, officlals note.

Some other tips:

• If you use commercial fertilizers or pesticides, always follow the directions for applying them. Extra amounts will just run off into storm drains and pollute water. And avoid pesticides containing diazinon, chlorpyrifos, carbaryl and malathion. These are likely to kill more good bugs and birds than the targeted pests.

• Take a break if there is wind or rain when you’re using chemicals or fertilizers. Wind can spread them through the air, and rain washes them directly into waterways, promoting the growth of algae and weeds that can deprive fish of the oxygen they need.

• Never dispose garden chemicals in storm drains, which empty directly into waterways. Sinks are also off-limits, as their drains send the chemicals into the wastewater treatment system.

• Information on the proper methods of disposing pesticides is available from the city at (253) 591-5418. Some basic things to know include this: The Household Hazardous Waste Facility at the Tacoma landfill accepts unwanted pesticides only from city and Pierce County residents. Commercial users can contact the business technical assistance program at (253) 591-5418 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily. Disposal is available at 3510 S. Mullen St. from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week, except some major holidays.


An electric mulching mower chops up grass clippings and blows them down into the turf as a natural nutritional supplement that promotes water retention. Lawns maintained with an electric mulch mower need, on average, one-third less fertilizer and 300 fewer gallons of water per year.

Want another reason to go away from gas-powered mowers? Using one of those for one hour causes as much air pollution as driving a car for 50 miles, whereas an electric mulch mower emits no pollution.


Low-maintenance plants, especially ones native to the Northwest climate and soil conditions, require fewer chemicals to flourish. Local gardening centers can help you pick them out. So can the local Master Gardeners program, which for Tacoma can be contacted at (253) 798-7170.

When hiring landscaping maintenance or design professionals, consider ones that offer sustainable and natural yard care. Such businesses often have received sustainable and natural yard care training co-sponsored by the city of Tacoma Environmental Services Department and other government agencies and have pledged to use sustainable landscaping options when possible.

As a public courtesy, a list of such businesses is provided by the Environmental Services Department, but it isn’t an official endorsement of any business listed, their business practices, expertise or workmanship.


A clean car is nice. But wash your car on your lawn or on gravel. Grass and gravel filter the dirt and soap out of the water and keeps the pollutants out of storm drains and, by extension, streams, lakes and Commencement Bay. Don’t worry, officials say, the soap won’t hurt your lawn. But it does hurt fish if it contains phosphates, which remove oxygen from the water that fish need to survive. So use soap or detergent that’s phosphate-free.

Sweeping driveways and street gutters before you wash your car helps prevent dirt, leaves and trash from going into gutter and storm drains.

If you’re not a do-it-yourselfer and instead take your vehicle to commercial car washes, make sure they recycle the water they use..

Car washes are a popular and traditional fund-raiser for schools and non-profit community groups. They’re also good for the environment if they’re using one of Tacoma’s Clean Bay Car Wash kits. The kits include plugs for the nearest storm drain, a pump, hoses, extension cords and instructions. With the kit, dirty water is pumped to the city’s wastewater system for treatment before heading out into local waterways.

The kits are free and can be reserved at (253) 502-2220 or envirochallenger@cityoftacoma.org


What causes one-third of the water pollution in Washington? If you said oil or similar chemicals from automobiles, you’re right. That’s the word from the state Department of Ecology. So if your car leaves an oil or gas stain where you park it, it’s time to fix the leak.

There are other common-sense ways to keep oil where it belongs. For instance:

• Dispose of old or used oil at approved, free collection sites for recycling. Many automotive parts stores and gas stations collect used oil. Tacoma and Pierce County residents can also recycle used oil at the Household Hazardous Waste Facility at the Tacoma Landfill. L

• Don’t dump oil into the street, on grass, down storm drains or sinks, or in the garbage.


Ask a dog owner if they clean up after their four-legged friend, and you get a variety of answers. “Absolutely. You bet.” “Not all the time, but I try.” “I should, but it’s gross.” And (honest, they really said this), “No, let somebody else do it.”

There are no ifs, ands or buts: Dog owners must scoop up after their pet on walks and dispose the droppings in a plastic bag in the garbage. It’s the law. Official ordinance states, “It is a violation for any person to fail to immediately remove fecal matter deposited by a dog or other animal in his or her possession on public property such as park property, school grounds, public rights-of-way, or public easements or on private property that does not belong to the animal’s owner or custodian.”

Officials also urge pooch pals to be equally fastidious at home. Dog droppings in their own yards or elsewhere produce more than 3 million pounds of waste in Tacoma alone, making pet waste a large contributor to water-quality problems and a potential hazard to humans.

Responsible dog owners who clean up after their pet during a walk are also helping prevent pollutants from reaching water.
Responsible dog owners who clean up after their pet during a walk are also helping prevent pollutants from reaching water.