Backyard Pollution Prevention: 5 Ways to Help Keep Waterways Healthy

Posted Tue, 09/28/2021 - 14:35
By Megan Ewald, Office of Response and Restoration
A community with lots of green space.
Theory of Change community illustration, which includes lush greenery, people playing and conversing outside, and community buildings and houses. Image credit: NOAA Office of Education.

When it comes to keeping waterways clean, we all have a part to play. Some of the most simple steps can take place in your own backyard. 

Our communities, including our individual homes, are part of an interconnected watershed. This means that the rain that falls onto your house and lawn flows through communities. From there they flow into creeks, rivers, and even into lakes or oceans.

In urban areas, this runoff can pick up harmful materials, like fertilizers, pesticides, and marine debris that harm waterways. While wetlands and forests slow the flow of runoff and help water filter through the soil, in cities water flows quickly from our houses and into waterways. Slowing down the flow of water and choosing alternatives to harmful chemicals can help reduce runoff and keep our waterways healthier. 

Let’s explore five ways to turn your backyard into a pollution preventing garden. 

Soaking Up Water with Rain Gardens 

A garden.
Rain garden at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System facility in Leeds, Massachusetts. Image credit: U.S. Air Force.

Rain gardens are designed to trap rainwater and allow it to soak into the ground. To build one, dig a depressed area to allow water to pool and surround it with native flowers, grasses, and shrubs. Not only will these plants help filter out pollutants, they also provide habitat for pollinators like bees and butterflies. Rain gardens are a cost-effective and beautiful way to help prevent pollution. 

Choose Alternatives to Fertilizers 

A handful of soil with a plant in it.
Image credit: EPA.

When synthetic fertilizers run off lawns and into waterways the excess of nutrients, or eutrophication, can cause excessive algae and plant growth. When the algae or plants decompose, it removes oxygen from the water, which can kill fish and other wildlife. Choosing alternatives to backyard fertilizers, like compost or animal dung, helps to reduce fertilizer runoff and keep waterways healthy. 

Disconnect Your Downspout 

A rain collection barrel.
Rain barrel. Image credit: CT DEEP.

Rain that falls onto roofs flows into gutters, through downspouts, into the storm sewer, and on to waterways. Disconnecting your downspout and capturing water in rain barrels helps reduce this runoff. Later, water collected in rain barrels can be used to water gardens to help save money on utilities. Rain barrels are easy to install, and a great way to save water from rainy days.

Choose Natural Pest Protection 

A yard.
Image credit: EPA.

Pesticides and herbicides applied to lawns can runoff into waterways and harm the plants and animals that live there. Luckily, there are natural and watershed-friendly ways to control weeds and backyard pests. Applying mulch to garden beds and around trees helps to slow weed growth. Only watering gardens in the morning or at night helps to prevent evaporation, which can encourage mold and plant disease. Finally, planting pest-resistant native species helps to ward off harmful insects and encourage balanced backyard ecosystems. 

Rethink Traditional Lawns

A yard.

How much of your lawn do you actually use? Identifying which areas of your lawn are actively used, like as play areas for children or pets, can help you determine what you want from your backyard. Consider replacing unused lawn space with rain gardens and plants native to your area. In doing so, you’ll cut down time spent mowing and reduce pollutants running into local waterways. 

Learn more about backyard pollution prevention on the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s Website.