Down the drain: Street stencil reminds us that waste goes to lake

BRISTOL — As merrymakers began arriving for the Bristol Harvest Festival on Saturday, Sept. 26, a group of 14 volunteers with the New Haven River Anglers Association fanned out along Bristol streets on a serious mission.
In groups of twos and threes they stopped at storm drains in the village center, laid down a stencil, and painted a message for anyone who deposits waste — fluids and solids — into the gutters:
“Keep It Clean, Drains To River.”
The stencils, with the text accompanied by the image of a trout, are to remind Bristol residents to protect the New Haven River, as it drains into Otter Creek and eventually into Lake Champlain.
According to NHRAA conservation chair Stever Bartlett, while most folks understand how toxins like gasoline, motor oil or antifreeze could poison a stream directly, many are not aware that seemingly harmless clumps of dust, leaves, sticks or even mowed grass can — in sufficient amounts — make the river environment too warm or too dirty for fish and add to the phosphorus or nitrogen pollution in Lake Champlain. As Bristol has grown in population density, Bartlett said, seemingly innocuous actions like sweeping grass or dust into storm drains can have a harmful impact.
Indeed, the EPA’s most recent limits for phosphorus spilling into the lake require a 22.2 percent reduction in run-off from what the EPA calls “developed land” within the Otter Creek watershed. That’s a 22.2 percent reduction, throughout most of Addison County, in any kind of run-off from roads, both paved and dirt, parking lots, roofs, sports fields, etc.
The Anglers Association hopes  the stencils will raise awareness that the very storm drains folks walk or drive past every day along Main, North and other streets in Bristol, drain directly into the New Haven River just down the hill behind downtown.
The NHAA sponsored the storm drain stenciling day in collaboration with the town of Bristol and the Bristol Conservation Committee.
Bartlett said that while the group tries to take part in a river conservation project at least twice a year, he had been wanting the Anglers to tackle stenciling the storm drains for some time.
“When I first moved here about 10 years ago, I fished the New Haven river a lot — sometimes right from South Street right up through town towards Prayer Rock and up where the pizza place is. From the river, there’s a lot of areas where you can see where the drainage comes out and even pipes right to the side of the bank. And I thought, ‘Whoa, where are those coming from?’ and then I figured out that they were coming directly from the streets in Bristol. So for 10 years I’ve always wanted to put signs on there just to remind people not to dump any toxic wastes like gasoline or antifreeze or motor oil but also to keep the drain clear of grass clippings and leaves and things that have nitrogen and phosphorus that also go in the drain and end up right in the river. All that waste ends up in Otter Creek and eventually Lake Champlain, and as a larger ecosystem if we can reduce the point source, even a little, it helps.”
In the course of that Saturday morning, the volunteers stenciled about 60 storm drains.
Wearing reflective vests, hefting traffic cones and often standing partway into the road as they painted the stencils, the volunteers were able to strike up some conversations with passersby and hand out leaflets.
Among the volunteers were local Boy Scouts Oliver Cole, 15, and Andy Knight, 14, both students at Mount Abraham Union High School.
For Knight stenciling storm drains was a way to participate in community service and help the river.
“I think this is important to show people that it drains into the river because whatever goes down there affects the fish’s ecosystem and just how they live,” he said. “And I thought it’d be a really cool opportunity.”
Cole added, “It’s important to be doing this so we don’t harm the local river, the lake, even Otter Creek. It’s all connected. So if we keep it clean then the whole ecosystem — all the rivers and the lake — will be clean as well.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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