You can’t see, taste or smell the bacteria that pollutes our coastal waters and makes them unsafe to swim or shellfish. That’s why public health officials post signs to warn you not to swim or catch shellfish in coastal waters contaminated with too much bacteria.

Most of the bacteria that pollute coastal waters around Swansboro come from wildlife, and do not come from farms, industry, or failing sewage systems. These bacteria live and die on the landscape. They come from birds, raccoons, deer, and all kinds of warm-blooded animals. These bacteria typically stay stationary, and won’t cause water quality problems as long as rainfall can soak into the ground.

Bacteria become mobile when land is covered with houses, driveways, parking lots and roads. Rain no longer infiltrates into the ground, and instead becomes storm water runoff. In many places, storm water is concentrated, collected and then channeled in pipes and ditches and discharged into coastal waters. Storm water picks up and transports bacteria off the land as it flows downstream.

There are three potential ways to protect coastal waters from being contaminated by bacteria in runoff. You can attempt to: (1) remove the sources of bacteria so runoff stays clean; (2) treat storm water to remove bacteria that contaminates it; or (3) reduce the volume of storm water that our uses of land generate.

The first two options do not provide adequate water quality protection. That’s because it’s impossible-nor is it desirable—to eliminate wildlife that is the source of bacteria in storm water. Moreover, affordable clean up technology that removes bacteria from storm water is incapable of removing enough pollutants to ensure that coastal waters are safe for swimming and shellfishing. Thus, the only practical and affordable way to protect coastal waters is to reduce runoff so that it no longer transports bacteria overboard.

With a little forethought and good land use design, reducing the volume of runoff can frequently be done easily and cheaply. The key concept is to keep runoff connected to vegetated areas, such as lawns, woods, and roadside swales so that the soils in these green spaces continue to soak up rainfall. Vegetated depressions such as rain gardens help to reduce the volume of runoff by allowing rainfall to infiltrate into the ground.

Increasing the amount of rain that soaks into the ground is the basic premise of a new watershed restoration plan prepared and adopted by the Town of Swansboro. The plan estimates the amount of existing surface runoff generated by decades of development in Swansboro needs to be reduced. It provides a roadmap to reduce large volumes of storm water. Small scale and inexpensive runoff reduction measures designed to infiltrate rainfall and reduce the volume of runoff will be needed all over town to accomplish the cleanup goals outlined in this plan.

Simply moving a gutter downspout that currently discharges into a paved driveway so that it flows to a grassed lawn can reduce the volume of runoff reaching coastal waters from rooftops by 50 to 90 percent. Retrofits will soon be installed around Swansboro’s Town Hall to demonstrate these retrofit practices. After that, other retrofit projects will be installed along town owned streets and sidewalks.

Coastal waters around Swansboro can only be protected and restored if town residents get involved, and find ways to reduce runoff coming from their homes and businesses. Become a storm water detective next time it rains. Watch how rain flows on and over your property, and look for easy ways to capture some of that runoff and allow it to soak into the ground.

There are dozens of simple, do-it-yourself storm water retrofit practices that you can install. Smart Yards published by the North Carolina Coastal Federation ( is a free publication that explains these measures, and provides resources for you to use. Here is a free link to this publication:

You might remember television commercials that warned us to always buckle up for safety because most car accidents happen close to home. The same can be said about coastal pollution. We need you to capture and infiltrate runoff around your home or business since bacteria that pollute our coastal waters can be traced back to where you live and work. We all contribute to coastal water quality problems, and that makes it easy for each of us to be part of the solution to coastal water pollution.


Todd Miller is executive director and founder of the N.C. Coastal Federation that has worked since 1982 to protect and restore coastal water quality. He is a native of Carteret County and lives in Ocean.

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