The incredible journey of litter

(WARRENSBURG, Mo.) – The litter that’s visible is obnoxious. But there is a lot going on that isn’t visible. Just because you can’t see it does not mean that it isn’t affecting you.

Through an intricate web of drains, pipes, man-made channels and natural creeks designed and maintained to reroute stormwater away from the city, litter is traveling miles throughout our town, behind our homes and beneath our feet.

I recently met up with Marvin “Slim” Coleman, Warrensburg’s director of Public Works, and he took me around town to show me parts of the complex stormwater drainage system, just one part of what his department oversees.

If you haven’t spent much time thinking about the storm drains throughout the city, you aren’t alone.

“People don’t take notice,” Coleman said. “They’re essential to keeping property from flooding, controlling runoff, and they help with keeping streets in good condition.”

It isn’t just the citizens who don’t notice them.

“Elected officials like to do things that everyone can see get done. Getting streets built, a street lamp up,” he said. “(The storm drainage system) is not a prominent detail – until there’s failure. Then it’s an issue we all recognize.”

It’s one thing to ignore them and the function they serve. It’s something entirely different to misunderstand their function and misuse them.

Coleman said people often think of them as a way to get rid of things. He said he’s caught people dumping antifreeze and used motor oil into them. He’s been called to retrieve keys, wallets and cell phones.

The Police Department has even called him because someone has tried to use the storm drains to stash contraband items, stolen merchandise, knives and guns. While those calls have been made infrequently, they have been made.

The list goes on.

“We’ve found trash can lids, hubcaps, toys, sports balls, car batteries,” he said. “All of these things can cause problems.”

One problem is that the concrete vaults the drains empty into aren’t designed to hold things. They’re designed to regulate the flow of water – with it comes anything the water is carrying.

About a quarter of the town’s water runoff drains into Lion’s Lake.

I used to believe the bottles, cans and other items floating in Lion’s Lake ended up there because someone put them there.

I now know it’s entirely possible that the person who once held that bottle or can may not have been anywhere near the lake when they stopped holding it.

Another problem with allowing litter into the storm drains is it can clog the pipes that connect one part of the system to another. The clogs can cause the drains to back up, forcing water back into the streets, negating the whole point and purpose of having a drain in the first place.

Clogged pipes and vaults require maintenance. Maintaining this system is expensive.

At the minimum, someone has to clear the blockage. It requires special equipment and a paid employee.

At the other end of the financial spectrum, when the vaults and pipes are damaged, they must be replaced.

“People think these things will last forever,” Coleman said. “But they don’t, especially if we don’t take care of them.”

He said that the average cost of one of the vaults is $3,200. The cost of the pipes that connect the vaults to each other and to where they empty is $100 per foot.

I encourage you to take those numbers, go for a walk or a drive, count the drains and see how much money you pass.

Remember, those numbers are just averages. Coleman said some of the larger vaults cost upwards of $10,000, and some of the larger pipes can cost around $1,000 per foot.

Taxpayers don’t want to shell out that kind of money too many times.

Also consider that the Public Works Department has a budget that isn’t entirely devoted to the stormwater drainage system. Every time they have to fix something that we broke just because we were unwilling to carry the remnants of our last fast-food excursion to a trash can, it takes money out of that budget.

If something needs to be repaired beyond a certain proximity to the street, that money comes out of the city’s general revenue fund, which is shared by all of the city’s departments; those repairs don’t just affect what the Public Works Department is able to do. They can affect what the city in general is able to do.

One more consideration to make: The Public Works Department employs a 10-person crew. Coleman said most communities the size of Warrensburg have 20 or more.

Already forced to either do half as much as a unit or twice as much per person, every time they have to go down and clean up one of our messes, it prevents them from doing something else. They’re not patching streets or repairing sidewalks or keeping our historic downtown in good condition because they’re 6 feet or more underground fishing our trash out of a system that must not fail.

There’s more.

We’re not just capable of littering and polluting parts of our own town from a couple of miles away.

We’re capable of polluting other towns from hundreds, even thousands of miles away. What we’re littering here is finding its way to the ocean, and from there the possibilities are endless.

Coleman said all of our stormwater drains into other bodies of water. To the west, our runoff feeds into Post Oak Creek, which feeds into the Blackwater River. To the east, our runoff feeds into Bear Creek, which feeds into the Blackwater River. To the north, our runoff finds its way directly into the Blackwater River.

The Blackwater River feeds into the Missouri River, which feeds into the Mississippi River, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico.

Everything our runoff carries feeds into those creeks and rivers and finds its way to the ocean.

We are contributing to a global issue from the center of a continent. This isn’t just careless.

It’s reckless.

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