Engineer: Consider the fish

Wash water report highlights effects on environment

Think of the fish.

Chad Voigt, the city’s stormwater engineer, told commissioners that controversial regulations regarding whether nonprofit organizations can hold car washes in parking lots or whether business owners can wash off their sidewalks, would be better understood if people thought more about how their actions affect the environment.

Voigt said people don’t always make the connection that water from seemingly innocent car washes or sidewalk cleanings drain into the city’s stormwater system, which flows directly and unfiltered into either the Kansas or Wakarusa rivers.

“People need to ask themselves if they feel good about what they are putting into the river,” Voigt said. “If you really don’t want it around you, the fish probably don’t feel too good about swimming in it either.”

Voigt delivered a report to city commissioners Tuesday night after two incidents earlier this year created questions about the city’s stormwater management program. In June, commissioners received a complaint from Free State Brewery owner Chuck Magerl about a city site plan requirement that would prohibit him from washing his sidewalk and allowing the water to drain into the storm sewer.

In July, the city’s stormwater office also drew attention by shutting down a car wash sponsored by the Lawrence Community Shelter because its soapy water was draining into a storm sewer.

On Tuesday, Voigt told commissioners that some sidewalk washing was probably allowable. He said that if merchants swept the area before washing and ensured that the water wouldn’t carry dangerous pollutants – like motor oil or cigarette butts – they wouldn’t be in violation of the city’s policy.

But the issue of car washes is not so easy. Voigt said it was pretty cut and dry that car washes that discharge soapy water – usually about 7,000 gallons per car wash – into storm drains weren’t allowed. Instead, he said nonprofit groups wanting to hold car washes should contact area car dealers who have at times allowed groups to use their car washing facilities, which drain into the sanitary sewer system.

City Commissioner Mike Amyx, who in June spoke out against the sidewalk washing rules, said he thought Voigt’s report at least gave merchants some guidance.

“What I know is that it’s hard to keep the area clean without water,” said Amyx, who also owns a downtown barber shop.

Voigt noted that no merchant had been given a ticket for illegally washing a sidewalk.