In 1983, government officials in Fort Worth, Texas discovered that chemical and sewage discharge from storm drainages was seeping into open waterways, posing a major health concern. For years, local governments across the United States had failed to appropriately address storm drainage systems as a major source of water pollution. Although cities heavily focused on monitoring sewer systems, they rarely acknowledged that drainage systems also posed a serious threat as a conveyor of harmful pollutants into a community's drinking water reservoirs as well as into popular swimming and fishing areas.
Drainage systems are more challenging than sewer systems to monitor accurately due to their complex design and the inconsistency of both the quality and the quantity of their water flow. The equipment, methodology, and levels of expertise required to conduct and evaluate large-scale, drainage-water pollution control programs were highly cost prohibitive, and until 1987, no national standard for quality of water within storm drainage systems existed.
The Fort Worth Health Department took a groundbreaking step in 1983 by developing a practical, low-cost, and low-manpower solution to the evaluation and improvement of the quality of storm drainage water. The Water Pollution Control Program introduced simplified alternatives to the traditionally expensive, highly sophisticated, and time-consuming techniques for water-quality monitoring. The Health Department hoped to reduce discharges, including chemical and sewage waste, into the storm drainage system and to develop a universal quality standard for storm drainage water.
The Water Pollution Control Program locates storm drainage water contamination by employing both conventional and innovative methods. Traditional means include citizen complaints, occasional helicopter surveillance, and a daily roving patrol of various city sectors. New monitoring approaches include a monthly citywide water quality assessment program and screening for metals and pesticides in water and sediment. The biotoxicity of the water is determined by a simple procedure, which consists of the placement of a permeated container of minnows within the storm drain system for several days. The assessment of the survival of the fish determines the toxicity level of the water, screening for all harmful chemicals. When pollution is evident, the next step is to identify the contamination source, which sometimes requires tracing the toxin upstream until a cause is determined. If the source is controllable, such as off property discharge, the responsible party is held accountable. However, certain types of pollution, such as urban runoff from lawns and streets, cannot be corrected with the available funding and present technology.
The Fort Worth Health Department has also started a strong prevention campaign using blanket letters to industrial groups, distribution of Water Quality Guidelines, and interdepartmental education. Rather than attacking the industrial community, the Health Department has established a cooperative relationship, and heavy media coverage is making many industries increasingly image conscious.
The residents of Fort Worth strongly support the Water Pollution Control Program because it is a cost-effective solution that has produced evident results. The program staff predicted that they would complete 144 corrections on major industrial and municipal storm drains in 1987, compared to only 22 modifications in 1985. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have recognized the Water Pollution Control Program as the first in the nation to utilize such a holistic approach to curb storm drainage pollution. Over 300 jurisdictions across the nation have replicated portions of the Fort Worth program, using the program's basic principles as a guideline for improving water quality to meet the demands of the Clean Water Act.