This activity explains how to report pollution entering your local stormwater system. Cities and towns with Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4) direct stormwater runoff directly to local waterbodies rather than treatment plants. Pollution entering this system, for instance through storm drains and other catch basins, might be an "illicit discharge" that's not allowed under an existing stormwater permit.
Under US EPA requirements, cities and towns with MS4 permits must have an Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination (IDDE) program in place. As part of this program, each municipality will have a contact person to whom residents can report illicit discharges. This contact must then detect and eliminate the problem discharge.
This activity is based on tips shared by Courteny Morehouse, an environmental planner with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission in Massachusetts. Thanks, Courteny!
- Note-taking materials (paper/pen, note app on a smartphone)
- Computer/tablet/phone with a connection to the internet
- Phone for calling hotlines or municipality contacts
Observe an illicit discharge of wastewater or common warning signs of one. According to the Greater Lansing Regional Committee for Stormwater Management, there are four common clues that could indicate illicit discharges:
- Dry weather flow: it hasn't rained for 72 hours but you still see flow into or out of a storm drain.
- Suds or foam: you see soapy bubbles or foam at an outlet. You could try a "stick test" to see if the foam is likely naturally-occurring or potential pollution.
- Sewage: you see sanitary waste, gray water, or black staining inside the outlet pipe. This can come from leaking sanitary sewer pipes, for example.
- Oil and gas: you see a rainbow sheen on the water's surface. Again, you can try a "stick test" to see if it's naturally-occurring or oil/gas.
Places you might see clues of illicit discharges include storm drain inlets along a roadway, pipes draining into ditches, and stormwater system outlets/outfalls draining into larger waterbodies.
Note details about the discharge. Take note of where, when, and what you see and smell at the discharge point. 📝
Find contact information for the municipality in which you found the illicit discharge. If you're in a city or town, it's probably easiest to start by searching for the city's general public website. If you don't have access to an internet-connected device, you can also find the city's general contact phone number in a phone book.
Once you're on your city's website homepage, you can try a few things to locate the specific contact for reporting illicit discharges:
- Look for a "Services" category and see if "Environment" or "Stormwater" is listed. Then look for something like a "Stormwater hotline." If you find a hotline number---success! 👍🏻
- If that doesn't work, try using the website's search bar to search for "illicit discharge" or "illicit discharge detection and elimination." From any results, try locating a contact number.
- If you can't find a stormwater-specific contact number, try the city's general reporting phone line, like 311.
When I tried finding this information at a few different city websites, there wasn't a single approach that consistently led me to the right place.
For example, the City of Bellingham in Washington state has a webpage about stormwater management and easy-to-see resources that include a stormwater hotline. In contrast, the City of Somerville in Massachusetts uses 311 to accept reports about illicit discharges, and I found this information buried in a PDF listed on a results page after I searched for "illicit discharge."
You might have to poke around a bit. 🔎
If you can't find reporting contacts for your city or town, you can try going up a level and contacting your state's environmental agency. The EPA lists Health and Environmental Agencies of U.S. States and Territories here. Click on your state and then follow the link for the agency that has "environment" in its name. Some states have combined environmental and public health agencies. If you don't see an agency that mentions "environment," try "natural resources" or "ecology."
💬 Edited to add: check out this comment below for more tips on different ways to report stormwater pollution. And thanks to Kirsten at RE-Sources for the information!
Report the illicit discharge with information you noted in step 2!
Follow up activities
- The Greater Lansing Regional Committee for Stormwater Management website is a treasure trove of information about stormwater. Check out their resources on ways residents can prevent polluted stormwater from entering local watersheds.
- National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) wiki page: more information on discharges into stormwater systems and permits that allow discharges from certain sources.
Have you reported an illicit discharge report and have tips to share? If you have any ideas for improving this activity, please comment below!