As the weather cools, and the nights grow long, a little-known seasonal pollutant builds up in the streets: fallen leaves. Yes, leaves are litter too. Although people think of leaves as natural debris, when they flow through storm drains and into local waterways, they become a major problem. 

clearing storm drain
Each Saturday throughout the month of October, volunteers in the Audubon neighborhood of Minneapolis will clean up storm drains.

Decaying organic matter is harmful to lakes, rivers, and streams. As leaves decompose, the resulting nutrients fuel algae growth. The unsightly algae blooms can cover the surface of polluted lakes, sucking oxygen out of the water and choking fish and native plants. Keeping those leaves out of the storm drains helps keep our lakes and rivers clean and clear. 

There are 180 lakes within the Twin Cities metro watershed region that feed into the Mississippi River. Of those 180 lakes, almost half are polluted beyond water quality standards due to excess nutrients such as phosphorus. Leaves are responsible for up to 60% of the excess nutrients in these bodies of water. 


Water steward inspires community to take action

Michelle Spangler is a resident of Northeast Minneapolis, and she’s a Minnesota Water Steward. Water stewards are volunteer community leaders dedicated to protecting our waterways. Michelle grew up “further down the river” in St. Louis and spent time in the west before settling with her family in the Twin Cities. Her experience as a high school science teacher was inspired, in part, by her lifelong interest in environmental education.

Living near the Mississippi River isn’t something Michelle takes for granted after her years away from the midwest. Before enrolling in the water steward program, she didn’t know that stormwater runoff that enters storm drains flows unfiltered into the river. When she realized all the trash along the curb washes right into the Mississippi, she was shocked.

This realization changed the way Michelle saw her city landscape. As she stood with her son at his school bus stop, she noticed all the piles of leaves and trash around the drains. “We ended up adopting six of them,” she said. Community members like Michelle who adopt storm drains volunteer to sweep them clear of debris year round. She loved the family-friendly aspect of this simple, community clean-up. 

Soon her kids’ friends joined in, and their families adopted other drains in the neighborhood. Michelle is passionate about including the younger generation in environmental action. “So often kids are told ‘you can’t do that’ because they’re too young, but they can help clean leaves out of storm drains, and it makes them feel really good.” 

clean storm drain celebration
Michelle first adopted storm drains near her son’s bus stop, and both her kids enjoy this family friendly clean-up activity.


Neighbors compete to clean up streets

This year, Michelle has expanded her community cleanup efforts in a big way. She challenged the neighborhoods of Northeast Minneapolis to a competition to see who can adopt the most storm drains. Since the contest began last spring, nine of the thirteen neighborhoods that comprise Northeast have participated in the adopt-a-drain challenge. The cumulative impact is impressive. Altogether, 210 storm drains have been adopted across Northeast, and volunteers prevented over 1,400 pounds of waste from washing into the river. 

Each Saturday this month, Michelle is leading volunteers at the Audubon Neighborhood Association in two hours of community cleanup. Adopting a storm drain is an activity that allows volunteers to socially distance outdoors, and everyone is asked to bring a mask. “Even if we’re at separate street corners, we’re doing it together,” Michelle said. “It’s empowering. We can start making a difference with our own two hands.”

tools for clearing storm drains
Fall is an especially important time to clear leaves away from storm drains. With a broom and a bucket, anyone can make a difference.

Wherever you live, you can be a part of the adopt-a-drain movement. Check out this website to find and adopt a storm drain near you. Don’t forget, as the leaves pile up, to rake them away from the drain. You can use a mower to mulch leaves into the yard, add them to the compost pile, or dispose of them in yard bags, but don’t let leaf litter pollute our waterways.

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  1. Hi Bob. In order to create change, it’s so important to model best practices and make them visible to others—like sweeping up streets and sidewalks and cleaning storm drains. If you’ve adopted a storm drain, you can display an adopt-a-drain sign in your yard. And you might also mention to your neighbor, in a friendly way, that storm drains flow to lakes and rivers unfiltered so that’s why it’s important to keep pavement clear of debris. Beyond that, I’m afraid there’s not much you can do. Thanks so much for your work, Bob!

  2. My nieghbor blows his driveway leaves aorns screws right into the street gutters. i old him not to but to no avail. How do ou stop him

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