When a round of heavy rain hits Southern California, Los Angeles County officials estimate that several tons of trash flush straight into the ocean.

Debris collected during the dry summer months in gutters and storm drains throughout the county travel to the ocean with the first round of rain, referred to as the “first flush” by environmental engineers.

Pet droppings, fast food wrappers, lawn fertilizer, used motor oil and cigarette butts are just a few of the pollutants that county residents toss into the street every day without thinking about the damage, county officials said.

This lack of awareness has prompted the county’s Department of Public Works to remind the public of the dangers of stormwater pollution through the Stormwater Pollution Prevention Campaign.

Trash ends up in the storm drain system and eventually in beaches and rivers where pollution endangers the public’s health and marine life.

The county’s two trash nets in Long Beach and Ballona Creek are the last lines of defense before trash flows into the Pacific Ocean.

Water that flows over streets, parking lots, construction sites and industrial facilities carries trash through a 5,000-mile storm drain network directly connected to the rivers and beaches of Southern California.

The storm drain system is separate from the sewage system. Storm drains are intended to take rainwater straight into the ocean to avoid area flooding.

Water traveling through the storm drain system is not treated, so trash and sludge that have accumulated throughout the system get pushed over the trash nets and end up floating in the ocean.

“The volume of trash collected at the Los Angeles River net is a powerful reminder that everything in the street — trash, cigarette butts, pet waste, even oil that leaks from cars — wash into the ocean after each heavy rainfall,” said Emma Ayala, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works.

“It’s a reminder to county residents that unless they want to end up swimming alongside it later, put trash where it belongs — in a garbage can.”

The trash net collection systems were designed to help mitigate the immense amount of trash before it reaches the ocean.

Each year, these systems capture more than 300 tons of litter, though they do not catch everything. Tons of litter and other contaminants escape these collection systems and drift into the ocean.

Gary Boze, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works, said “a significant amount of small items” ends up in the ocean.

Boze said the trash nets break away during heavy storms to let the water flow to prevent flooding, so trash can and does escape the trash nets.

“This is a problem that won’t go away unless each and every one of us does our part,” Ayala said.

“We all need to make a commitment to prevent stormwater pollution by taking simple steps like using a trash can or picking up after our pets.”

To put stormwater pollution into perspective, county officials believe that the Los Angeles flood channel sees enough trash to fill the Rose Bowl stadium field two stories deep and county residents dispose of enough tons of waste to fill Dodger Stadium every two weeks.

Average yearly rainfall in Los Angeles County is 15.5 inches. January, February and March are the county’s rainiest months. The month of October typically marks the beginning of the rainy season.

The pollutants listed below are deadly to animals and plants, contribute harmful bacteria to neighborhoods and create public health risks at beaches:

– animal waste: contributes harmful bacteria to neighborhoods, public health risk;

– cigarette butts: add 900,000 to a million pieces of trash each month;

– trash: plastics kill wildlife and are unsightly;

– motor oil: one gallon pollutes a million gallons of water;

– pesticides: upset natural balance and kill favorable organisms; and

– fertilizers: upset natural balance, favor algae over natural vegetation.

County surveys indicate residents contribute to stormwater pollution each day by:

– dropping litter on the ground or out a car window;

– walking a dog without picking up the droppings;

– allowing paper or trash to blow into the street;

– changing oil and placing it in the gutter or trash can;

– dropping a cigarette butt on the ground;

– hosing leaves or dirt off driveway or sidewalk into the street;

– emptying a car ashtray into the street;

– watering the lawn or garden and letting the water run into the street;

– washing off paint brushes under an outdoor faucet;

– throwing something in the gutter;

– spraying the garden or lawn with pesticide and allowing it to wash off; or

– washing their cars in a location that allows the wash water to run onto the pavement and into a gutter.

Information, visit the Web site at www.888CleanLA.com

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) “Don’t Trash California” stormwater public education campaign has also been developed in part to reach out to Californians about the effects of trash as the key source of pollution along the state’s highways and freeways.

Caltrans spends more than $41 million a year cleaning up the state-controlled highways and freeways.

In Los Angeles and Orange Counties alone, Caltrans workers have picked up more than 19,500 tons of litter annually that could have ended up in waterways.

“This silent problem of freeway and highway pollution does more than make our community look bad,” said Priscilla Rivera, a spokeswoman for Caltrans.

“Litter that finds its way into storm drains can end up harming the area’s water system — including our precious rivers, lakes and beaches — as stormwater flows untreated into our waterways.”

Cigarette butts are the number one littered item on California highways and freeways. Other commonly littered items include fast food wrappers, cups, cans, bottles and beverage bottles.

Statistics show that approximately 4,125 tons of cigarette butts alone are littered annually in the state of California, many of which are discarded through car windows.

“Cigarette butts are really big problems in our storm drains,” Boze said.

Rivera said state residents could prevent pollution on highways and freeways by:

– never throwing any trash or litter on the ground;

– never throwing anything out a car or truck window; and

– always carrying a litter bag in the vehicle.

Information, visit the Web site at www.DontTrashCalifornia.info

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