VALDOSTA -- Many people don't think twice before dumping yard clippings, motor oil or other household products down local storm drains. It is an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality.

City leaders are hoping a new community awareness program changes all that.

The South Georgia Regional Development Center launched its Storm Drain Awareness Program on Wednesday, with local 4-Hers helping to place 10 curb markers on downtown storm drains. The city plans to place at least another 100 markers on drains around the community. The awareness effort will also include door hangers that list ways to help prevent harmful surface runoff.

"This program was developed to provide a tool of outreach to the community for non-point source pollution, which is the number one impairment of state waterways," said RDC Environmental Planner Emily Perry, who spearheaded the effort. "In the big picture it improves the quality of life. We need water to survive. ... We just want to make people aware of how all our actions interact and affect our water quality."

Storm drains are a critical part of water quality efforts because -- contrary to what many people think -- that water does not run to water treatment systems and instead flows directly into local rivers and streams. When you consider Valdosta has an estimated 4,000 storm drains, the potential for contamination from clippings, oil, herbicides, fertilizers or anything else that runs off impermeable surfaces is great.

Perry said it is also important to keep gutters clear of dirt and trash. A hard rain washes debris into storm drains and can exacerbate flooding problems while tossing more garbage into waterways. It is important to push education efforts before runoff becomes a major problem, backed by expensive development regulations, she said.

Mayor James Rainwater was on hand for the kick off, noting awareness is often the first step toward corrective action.

"You'll find with most people that if you explain what is going on, they'll make corrections. ... (The city) has made some great improvements, and if we can get people to help us not pollute, we'll be able to control flooding a lot more than we can now," he said.

The program was a natural fit for the 4-H program, said coordinator Melinda Miller.

"This hit two of our core values today, environmental education and awareness and community service and citizenship," she said. "Hands-on learning is always important, and we just want to help increase awareness of storm drainage issues."

The 4-Hers will also help place the curb markers and distribute door hangers in other Valdosta neighborhoods.

A big part of stormwater related problems in urban areas is the prevalence of paved areas, either streets, driveways or parking lots. Water cannot seep through the impermeable surfaces and is swept to storm drains carrying all manner of effluents.

"Since the area recently achieved metro status, it will continue to grow," Perry said. "When you have such growth at such fast speeds, sometimes things don't get planned as well. But if we increase awareness, people will realize the consequences of their actions for our environment."

Valdosta will be required to meet higher standards from the state Environmental Protection Division as a result of its new status. Vince Williams, program manager for EPD's Total Maximum Daily Load implementation program, was also in Valdosta on Tuesday and praised the awareness program as an outstanding community outreach tool.

A recent watershed study illustrates the need for water resource protection. While rivers and streams in Lowndes County received generally high marks, some waterways were found to be slightly impaired through conditions that can be traced -- in part -- to stormwater runoff.

Managing stormwater is an expensive proposition. Atlanta has struggled to segregate its storm sewers from its sanitary sewers because heavy rains cause massive backups. It's a million dollar problem for many communities with antiquated sewer systems.

Other communities have developed stormwater utilities or authorities that charge user fees based on lot width and the amount of impermeable surfaces on the property. That money is used to mitigate runoff concerns. Many Florida communities turned to such agencies to cope with the costs of complying with additional state and federal standards. A stormwater authority in Griffin is seen as a model program in Georgia and was one of the first in the state to devise a user fee system that withstood legal challenges.

Valdosta City Manager Larry Hanson estimated that the city spends $400,000 annually on stormwater management, a number that could increase with new regulations.

Perry's program is not limited just Valdosta. Events were also staged in Statenville and Lakeland on Tuesday, with more scheduled Thursday in Ocilla and Fitzgerald. Perry said programs will also launch in Tift, Cook, Brooks and Turner counties in the coming months.

For information about the program, contact Perry at 333-5277.

To contact reporter Bill Roberts, please call 244-3400, ext. 245.

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