Autumn Leaves: Beautiful or Dangerous? How to keep our communities clean during the fall

By: Jill Hoffmann, executive director of the White River Alliance

Autumn leaves – a beautiful symbol of changing seasons or a notable source of water pollution? Both. As the weather turns colder and leaves begin to fall, many people fail to consider where those leaves end up. Unfortunately, leaves along our sidewalks and trash cluttering up our streets are headed to only one destination: local waterways. The White River Alliance, a leading voice for water resource protection in Indiana, is working to instill a sense of stewardship and responsibility among communities, by offering programs that help individual citizens and groups take actionable steps towards keeping Central Indiana streams and reservoirs healthy this fall.

People may not consider leaves as a pollution source, but as they start to accumulate in and around storm drains, they change from something natural and beautiful into a real problem. In fact, organic matter buildup (like fall leaves) contributes to widespread pollution issues across the country, since it eventually breaks down into harmful nutrients.

Too much of these nutrients can create algal blooms, low levels of oxygen and harm the aquatic life. This pollution can also threaten business and economic sectors that rely on high-quality water. In Indiana specifically, nutrient overload is having a negative economic impact. It increases the cost of public water treatment and reduces the recreational use of lakes for swimming and boating, according to the Indiana State Department of Agriculture. Additionally, recent estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency suggest that nitrogen and phosphorus buildup in the water costs the U.S. at least $2.2 billion annually.

Tons, literally tons, of other pollutants, like dangerous bacteria, fertilizer, sediment and trash, reach local storm drains every year. These storm drains empty directly into the White River and its tributaries, affecting wildlife and local public health. A goal of the White River Alliance is to raise awareness about these important infrastructure elements (storm drains) and make it clear that we can no longer take for granted the role they play in water quality.

So how can a community help to maintain the wellbeing of local waterways? The White River Alliance helps facilitate group involvement through a few key resources.

StormWater Action Team (SWAT) – The Alliance’s SWAT program, or StormWater Action Team, are groups willing to donate time to help steward storm drains and promote water quality awareness in their neighborhoods. SWAT members are assigned to a portion of a neighborhood with drainage problems. They then work to remove leaves and debris from several storm drains in the area, mark the drain with an educational marker and distribute educational information to neighbors around the drain. SWAT programs are a great way to volunteer for your neighborhood while taking on a collaborative project with friends, colleagues or neighbors.

Adopt A Storm Drain – The Alliance also offers the chance for members of your community to adopt a storm drain through their Clear Choices Clean Water initiative. The statewide program encourages residents to take action to improve water quality and protection through online pledges. When adopting a storm drain, residents pledge to keep the storm drain clean and free from leaves and debris and report any polluters. They also mark the storm drain with a community marker, if available, and can invite friends and neighbors to do the same through fun social media posts and resources.

River Cleanups – Another way to serve the community is to participate in or plan a river cleanup. The Alliance works with many partners throughout the year to host cleanups, but you can pledge to organize your own river cleanup as well. Sometimes, large and rather unusual items are discovered through these cleanups, like tires, appliances or even old Christmas decorations.

These neighborhood programs generate much needed awareness for maintaining safe and healthy storm drains. Storm drains are a daily and immediate connection between individual behavior around homes and yards and the White River – a fact often forgotten. Programs like SWAT and Clear Choices Clean Water presents residents with a chance to give back to their communities and improve individual connections with the river.

To get involved with these volunteer programs and many others, visit or take a service pledge at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *