Taking Care of Streams:
Backyard Stream Stewardship
① Backyard Streams
Stream Stewardship: the idea that each and every one of us is responsible for the sensible use of streams that flow through our property. If you do have a stream running through your yard, there are special steps you can take to be an effective stream steward.
From your backyard to your streams, we’re all connected. Even if you don’t have a stream running through your yard, your actions on your property can have impacts on our waterways. Making the connection between your yard and its downstream impact on our natural resources is critical for maintaining and improving the water quality of our streams.
Our creeks, streams and lakes are a resource that should be protected as a source of natural beauty and recreation. In addition, our creeks, streams and areas surrounding them are an integral part of communities’ infrastructure as they assist in managing pollutants and flooding. Creeks and streams can suffer from erosion problems leading to homeowner troubles. Depending on the severity of the problem there are numerous ways to reduce the erosion.
Practice Stream Stewardship:
- Do not mow to the creek or stream edge. Keep deep rooted vegetation along the banks to prevent erosion.
- Plant native deep rooted plants along creek or stream bank (flowers, shrubs, or trees found in Ohio).
- Never dump lawn waste such as grass clippings or leaves along stream banks as it will kill stream bank vegetation and cause more erosion. Instead setup your own composting bin.
- Never use heavy equipment (including riding mowers) within 10 feet of a creek or stream. The weight of the equipment can lead to crumbling of the banks.
- Leave some woody debris in the stream channel. It can be moved to the banks to help stabilize them.
- Keep structures at least 25 feet away from the stream bank, larger distances are recommend for larger streams. This distance will vary if your community implements a riparian setback regulation. Contact your community engineering, building, or zoning department to determine if your community has such zoning requirements.
- Conventional methods should not be the first choice for solving backyard stream erosion.
Historically, creek and stream erosion solutions have involved conventional measures of placing hard materials like railroad ties, concrete or large stones (rip rap) on streambanks or building walls of wire baskets filled with stones (gabion baskets). Hard structures like gabion baskets are typically used when infrastructure such as utility lines, roads or buildings are endangered by the eroding stream. Any in-stream work to install these hard structures requires an Ohio EPA 401 permit and a US Army Corps of Engineers permit.
While placing stone, railroad ties, or concrete on an eroding stream bank may appear to solve the problem, these practices often fail because they do not stabilize the bank properly. Long term monitoring of these erosion control methods in creeks and streams shows that they tend to aggravate problems instead of solve them. As water hits and deflects off the hard materials it moves faster and is more likely to erode downstream areas.
These structures, if installed incorrectly, may narrow the creek or stream, which increases the speed of the flow and causes more erosion. Hard structures also tend to require ongoing maintenance to correct instances where the hard materials are undermined and either peel away from the bank, or slump into the stream. Inappropriate solutions may cause more long-term damage than doing nothing at all.
Native vegetation is the number one resource for protecting eroding stream banks.
A creek or stream with limited damage may be stabilized with vegetation. The banks are planted with deep rooted plants that can hold soil in place and can withstand flooding and fast moving water. Vegetation planted along the creek or stream can be extremely useful in controlling soil erosion, providing wildlife habitat and improving water quality.
Plant deep-rooted native shade trees, shrubs, tall grasses or green herbaceous plants on the upper section of the bank to prevent erosion. Consider planting a strip of medium height native grass (2-3 feet tall) between the stream bank and lawn instead of mowing to the stream's edge. Learn more about native plants and where to buy them here.
Check out these additional resources
Tips for Clean Streams
Walk the dog. Wash the car. Change the oil. Add some anti-freeze. Kill some weeds. Fertilize the lawn. Certainly nothing odd about these activities, but without us noticing, our most common household chores could have an unhealthy impact on our creeks, streams and lakes. Each time it rains everything we leave on our streets, driveways, and lawns washes untreated through our ditches and storm drains into our creeks, streams and lakes. These pollutants threaten the health of fish and other life along the water. These pollutants also affect how we use our creeks, streams and lakes. No one wants to fish or play in dirty water.
What can we do to keep our streams and Lake Erie healthy and safe for our use? Keep pollutants out of rain water. Following some of these simple guidelines can have a big effect on our creeks, streams and lakes, and keep them clean and healthy so we can enjoy them for fishing, swimming and boating.
② Household Hazardous Waste
One quart of motor oil can contaminate up to 2 million gallons of water. Make sure household products such as motor oil, paint, varnishes, fertilizers, pesticides and pharmaceuticals are disposed of in a way that keeps them out of the storm drains and creeks. Get in touch with your local community or solid waste management district for proper recycle/disposal information.
- Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District
- Lake County Solid Waste District
- Geauga County Solid Waste Management District
- Portage County Solid Waste Management District
The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District also maintains a pocket guide for the kitchen, workshop, or garage.
③ In the Yard
Keep leaves, grass clippings, fertilizers, soaps, litter and harmful chemicals away from streets, ditches, storm drains and waterways. These waste products feed our waterways with added nutrients and toxins that contribute to harmful algae growth and kill fish.
Disconnect your downspouts. Be sure that roof gutters and downspouts empty onto the grass, rain garden or landscaped area where rainwater can soak into the ground or into a covered rain barrel to be used later for watering plants rather than allowing it to rush over asphalt and concrete. Downspouts on many homes are connected directly the storm sewer system. Disconnecting downspouts reduces the amount of water entering the system and reduces the amount of pollutants that get to the creeks, streams and lakes.
Bag pet waste and place it in the trash. Pet waste contains harmful bacterial pollutants which endanger our creeks and lakes and our ability to use them. When water (i.e. rain, hose water, sprinklers, etc.) comes in contact with pet waste the resulting water runoff contains high concentrations of bacteria, parasites, and viruses. When this runoff makes its way to ditches and storm drains these pollutants get washed into our creeks and Lake Erie. Check out Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s “Pick Up Poop” program.
④ Winter Practices
In the winter, the frozen soil conditions do not allow water to soak into the ground to filter out pollutants. Here are a few ways to prevent pollution throughout the winter months.
Use an alternative to standard ice melting salt. Potassium Acetate (KA) is an alternative to salt for melting ice and is just as effective yet less harmful to plants and trees. While KA is not a feasible alternative for de-icing extensive amounts of roadway due to its cost, it is a feasible alternative to de-ice front walkways or driveways. This is readily available at the local hardware store.
No Garage Rinsing: While it is tempting to take out the hose and spray the gray sludge and salt off of the car and out of the garage on a relatively warm winter day, this is not a good idea. Instead, take the car to a car wash and sweep the garage and properly dispose of the waste.
⑤ From Driveways to Waterways
Consider taking the car to a commercial car wash, or wash the car on the grass to filter pollutants. Washing the car on the street or driveway on a sunny day may be as American as baseball, but car washing detergents are toxic to fish and other aquatic animals and may contain nutrients that cause algae blooms. The runoff also carries heavy metals, sediments, oil and grease that are washed off the vehicle. Using a nozzle on the hose limits water use and runoff.
Do not hose off engine degreaser, tire cleaner, brake fluid, antifreeze or oil that was spilled on the driveway. Instead, sprinkle cornmeal, sawdust, cat litter over the spill let it soak a few hours, then sweep it up and properly dispose of it.
Fix that leak! Most of us wouldn’t think of pouring a quart of oil in the river or lake. Yet we allow our cars to leak oil, gas, and antifreeze onto our streets, roads, and parking lots and eventually into our waterways.
⑥ Using Less Water
Rain isn’t the only vehicle for water pollution. We water our lawns to satisfy our plants, wash our cars, and even spray down our sidewalks and driveways to make them look nice. The less water we use the less polluted runoff we will be sending to our waterways. Homeowners can reduce water use by:
- Putting a spray nozzle on the hose can save hundreds of gallons of water with each use.
- Using less water inside the house can also improve water quality. The more tap water use, the more treated water that is being adding to our creeks, streams and lakes. Check out “100 Ways to Conserve” water (http://www.wateruseitwisely.com/100-ways-to-conserve/index.php)
- Using a broom and dust pan to clean the driveway or sidewalk. Washing a driveway or sidewalk with a hose uses about 50 gallons of water every 5 minutes.
⑦ Septic Systems
Almost one quarter of all American homes depend on septic systems. Septic systems are wastewater treatment systems that collect, treat, and disperse the water that goes down the drains inside a home or business from the sink, bathtub/shower, toilet, washing machine, etc. The wastewater is treated onsite, rather than collected and transported to a centralized community wastewater treatment plant. If not installed or maintained properly, septic systems can pollute groundwater, creeks, and lakes. By following the basic recommendations below, you can help ensure that your system continues to function properly and keep our water resources clean.
- Cleaning the Tank: County Health Districts recommend pumping out septic tanks every three years for a three bedroom home with a 1,000 gallon tank. Smaller tanks should be pumped more often. Many communities and local health departments have mandatory pumping and point of sale inspection requirements. Check with your community for pump-out requirements.
- No Chemicals: Do not use chemicals for cleaning out the tank. They can do more harm than good because chemicals can kill beneficial bacteria that break down raw sewage.
- Minimize Flow to the System: Fix dripping faucets and install low-flow, water saving toilets and shower heads to avoid overloading the system. These fixtures, particularly shower heads, are readily available and easy to install.
- No Additives: Commercial septic tank additives have been shown to be ineffective and are not recommended.
- Distance from Streams, Lakes and Wetlands: Install new septic systems as far away from streams, lakes and wetlands as possible.
- No Trash: Do not add grease, diapers, paper, plastics, feminine products and cigarette butts to the system. These materials do not decompose and can clog the system, increasing maintenance needs while threatening area creeks and groundwater.
Have questions about your septic system? Contact your local Health Department:
- Cuyahoga County Board of Health
- Geauga County Health District
- Lake County General Health District
- Portage County Health Department
Get the Facts about the Ohio Department of Health's Home Septic Resources and Education.
⑧ Cleaning Supplies
These time-honored cleaning recipes rely on the likes of baking soda, borax, vinegar, club soda and lemon juice that are far less harmful to people and the environment than most hazardous household cleaners found in the grocery store today. They can also save you money!!
Here are a few of the best recipes:
- Window Cleaner: ¼ cup vinegar, ½ teaspoon dish soap and 2 – 4 cups of water. A good quality squeegee makes the windows streak free. Others swear by 2 tablespoons of Borax for every three cups of water. Still others rely on mixing a tablespoon of lemon juice in 1 quart of water. Wipe dry with a crumpled newspaper.
- All purpose cleaner: Mixed together, vinegar and salt make a good surface cleaner. Dissolving four tablespoons of baking soda in a quart of warm water also makes for a good general cleanser, as well as straight baking soda on a damp sponge.
- Drain Cleaner: Pour ½ cup of baking soda down the drain and follow with ½ cup of vinegar. Cover the opening if possible. Let it sit for a few minutes, then pour a kettle full of boiling water down the drain. This method is not to be used if a commercial drain opener has already been tried.
- Disinfectant: Mix ½ cup Borax in a gallon of hot water or dilute vinegar with water and use in a spray bottle and clean.
- Decal and adhesive remover: In one word, vinegar. Saturate a sponge with hot vinegar and squeeze over no slip decals on the bathtub floor. Squeeze behind adhesive-backed hooks to pry them loose. Vinegar also removes decals, stickers and price tags from china, glass and wood. Just paint with coats of white vinegar, let it sit for a few minutes, and then rub off the sticker or decal.
- Auto or boat parts degreaser: Use commercially sold soy-based or citrus-based cleaners. They are less toxic and they biodegrade.
- Copper and silver polish: Use equal amounts of vinegar and salt to clean copper pots and pans. Boil the silver with a teaspoon of salt in a pot with about 3 inches of water and a sheet of aluminum foil for several minutes. Then wipe off tarnish with a clean cloth.
⑨ Clean Boating
The small amount of raw sewage, litter and used oil or cleaning products dumped off the boat might not seem like much, but the impact swells when multiplied by the thousands of recreational and commercial boaters who do the same. Clean boating means clean healthy waters. Follow these simple steps to make a difference:
- Fuel-up carefully. Recycle used oil. Keep motors well tuned to prevent fuel and lubrication leaks.
- Empty sewage into shoreline wastewater facilities and never throw litter overboard. Not only does litter look bad, it injures and even kills aquatic life.
- Observe “no wake” zones. Boat wakes contribute to shoreline erosion and stir up bottom sediments that block sunlight from reaching underwater vegetation.
- Flush winterizing agents and antifreeze from the engine into a proper receptacle prior to launch each season.
- Use environmentally friendly products on the boat such as non-phosphate detergents, biodegradable products, and a scrub brush.
- Secure trash in a garbage receptacle on board and dispose of it properly on shore. If disposing at a marina, follow their recycling rules.