Saving our water one storm drain at a time

I’ve always been fascinated how water moves across landscapes – when it comes back down to the ground as rain or snow, where will it go? What will its adventure be? Will it fall as snow on a mountaintop, rain in a wetland or desert? Will it enjoy a cascading trip down a river or simply find the ocean? I love thinking about water sinking into the ground, dodging plant roots and subterranean creatures and making it down to replenish our groundwater aquifers. The pathways are limitless and endlessly cyclical.

Yet, as we humans continue to develop landscapes and change land use, we’ve introduced our own complex network of pathways for water to move. We tile drain our agricultural fields and create ditches to drain the land and grow crops. We create intricate networks of pipes to drain the extensive amount of impervious surfaces in our developed areas. We essentially re-plumb the landscape, with the result that we short-circuit the water cycle timeline – we build systems and infrastructure that aim to get water off the land and back into the rivers, lakes, and streams as quickly as possible.

While on the surface, this water removal makes sense – we don’t want our crops to drown or our neighborhoods to flood – we’ve also come to realize that with such actions come consequences. In developed areas, the runoff from roofs, driveways, sidewalks, parking lots, and roads has the potential to pick up litter and pollutants that then have a direct pathway via storm drains to our lakes, rivers, and streams. Beyond that, even natural materials like leaves, grass clippings, and dirt are pollutants to downstream receiving waters, serving as sources of phosphorus that can result in dreaded algal growth and blooms.

Obligatory photo to remind you that 1 pound of phosphorus in the water can result in over 500 pounds of algal growth. Wheeeeeeeee.

While there are a host of strategies that homeowners can implement to reduce the amount of runoff draining from their land (aka rain barrels, raingardens, etc.), an innovative volunteer program from Hamline University has taken the step to ask people to adopt and regularly clear their local storm drains. Called Adopt-a-Drain, the program launched in 2014 and to date has seen almost 10,000 Minnesotans adopting over 17,500 storm drains, collectively preventing nearly 475,000 pounds of debris from entering our lakes and rivers. It’s impressive!

There are so many reasons why the Adopt-a-Drain program just makes sense.

  • It’s simple – you get online at, put in your address, and select a drain near you (or place a pin if your drain doesn’t show up) to adopt it. You even get to name it. Our family owns “McDrainerson.”
  • It’s fast – every month, I take a few minutes to look over the storm drain and rake and sweep up any debris I see. I log in to my account and record how much debris (if any) I pick up.
  • It’s easy – it’s an activity that literally needs a few minutes every month, a trash bag or bucket, and broom. All ages can do this. It’s a fabulous family (or school class! or scout troop! or church group!) activity .
  • It’s effective – this is a program that demonstrates how little acts of conservation by a network of strangers can add up to make a big difference. It’s a fantastic and motivating community building exercise.

If you live in an area with storm drains and have been wondering if there’s a way to fit a small but measurable feat of conservation into your busy life, Adopt-a-Drain is great way to go. Adopt a drain, clear it regularly, and claim victory for doing your part to keep the lakes and rivers you love healthier. Visit today!

Our local girl scout troop cleared and stenciled 11 storm drains around their local elementary school.

Between now and May 15, 2022 Watershed Partners and Hamline University are offering an additional incentive to recruit more storm drain volunteers. All storm drain adopters, new and old, are invited to purchase Twins tickets at a discounted price of $15 for a special May 15 Adopt a Drain meet-up event. In addition, new adopters will also receive a canvas tote bag!