Clean Car, Dirty Creek

Russian River Watershed Association

Common sense tells us that you can’t get something clean without getting something else dirty. Depending on how you wash your car, you may be trading a clean car for a dirty creek. The dirt, oil and grease that flows off your fresh clean car often flows into the street, storm drains and then into our creeks. This water does not get treated at the local sewage treatment plant. When we wash our cars in our driveways, the dirt, oil and grease from our cars hitch a ride with the water and soap and flow into street gutters. Eventually, all those pollutants reach the Russian River.

The Power of One, Multiplied

If you’re thinking that washing your car couldn’t possibly hurt the fish in our waterways by itself, you’re probably right. But with the nice weather, you won’t be the only one making your ride gleam; lots of neighbors will be washing their cars too. All the dirt, oil, grease and soap will collect in the storm drains and wait for the next rainstorm. These pollutants do not evaporate, so they can collect all summer long. When winter returns, an entire summer’s worth of pollution is flushed into our creeks and the Russian River all at once.

Take a Break

The good news is that there are things you can do to reduce the environmental impact of washing your car. If you hand wash at home, try washing your car on an unpaved part of your yard and let your landscaping clean the wash water for you. When you wash your car on your lawn or other unpaved area, the pollutants you rinse off your car will saturate into the soil. The soil, gravel, and vegetation act as filters for the soap and grime.

The easiest way to wash your car is also the most environmentally friendly; have your car washed at a professional car washing facility. Most professional car wash facilities collect and re-use their rinse water. When done, they then discharge their dirty water to the sanitary sewer where it gets treated. Professional car washes also reduce water usage and support local jobs. You can take a break from washing your car and give our creeks a break too. A list of the “greenest” car washes in Sonoma County is available here: http://www.savingwaterpartnership.org/carwash

Fundraiser Car Washes

A community car wash is a traditional way to earn money for scouts, schools, or sports programs. Unfortunately, it also concentrates a lot of dirt, oil and grease in one location and then puts it all into storm drains (and eventually creeks) at once. If you are a planning a community car wash on a paved area, plan to block the storm drains receiving the rinse water and pump the accumulated rinse water into a sanitary sewer inlet, or direct the water to a landscaped area where it can soak in. Before planning a fundraising car wash, please call your local municipality for the latest requirements and guidelines.

With a little effort, we can each keep our cars gleaming while protecting our creeks. Clean cars don’t have to mean dirty creeks.

This article was authored by Eric Janzen of the city of Cloverdale, on behalf of RRWA. RRWA (www.rrwatershed.org) is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.

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