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Young volunteers learn that what goes down the drain comes out the tap


The youngsters didn't come because their parents told them to. They said they showed up on a steamy Thursday morning because they cared about their south Brooksville neighborhood.

Their mission: to paint street and sidewalk messages promoting clean water.

"Don't Dump Here, Drains To Lake," read the predominant admonition they stenciled on curbside pavement abutting grated outlets along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Some among the half-dozen 7- to 14-year-olds understood the rationale. Others learned about it during the public outreach project sponsored by Hernando County's stormwater management department.

"I saw the movie (Finding) Nemo, where he got flushed down the toilet and went into the ocean," said Douglas Jones, 9, awaiting his turn with a can of aerosol paint. "I thought, 'That's where it all goes.'"

Douglas was partly right. While bathroom waste and wastewater from elsewhere inside homes and factories first passes through plants that sanitize it, street water and other runoff flows ultimately into lakes, oceans and the aquifer, from which drinking water is drawn, he learned.

"Today, I heard (that) stuff down the storm drain does go to the ocean," he said. "I knew it pollutes."

County stormwater engineer Clay Black described the paint walk as a learn-as-you-go effort, sharing nuggets of water protection information with the youngsters while they trudged a good mile, stopping to imprint the messages at 24 stormwater drains.

"Everything that goes into the ground goes into the aquifer and comes out your faucet," Black explained.

He mentioned common pollutants poured into storm drains: motor oil, paint, fertilizer, pesticides.

And pet waste.

"Pet waste shouldn't even be buried," Black said. "Pet waste isn't fertilizer. Wrap it up and put it in the garbage. Then, it goes to the landfill."

The kids, clad in fluorescent orange safety vests, first scraped and swept away street grit, then chose and positioned one of several sign templates and spray painted the messages in blue or green. The profile of a panfish or a shark separated the message phrases.

Seven-year-old Samia McCauley's eyes opened wide at the mention of a shark as she glanced toward the water-laden retention pond beside the nearby sheriff's substation.

"Yes, that (pond) goes into a lake," Black said. "That could be poison. It could kill frogs. It could kill fish."

One of the kids picked out another template, positioned it on the sidewalk and squirted paint. The message, centered around a dog profile, read "Clean Up After Pets."

Jhayda Blake, 14, admitted that she had thought the stormwater outflow was "a poop drain."

"I hope this helps people not to dump here," Black said.

The kids are well-acquainted with dumping that goes on in their neighborhood. They make the rounds of Mitchell Heights and the surrounding neighborhood monthly, picking up trash and litter under the leadership of community resident and activist Tammy Delaine.

"Miss Tammy," as she's known in the neighborhood, had notified her picker-uppers of the painting project, the youngsters said.

"I came mostly because I wanted to help the community," Douglas said.

"I wanted to help the community so it would be clean," Samia added.

Shy and serious, 7-year-old Trey Haygood said, "If I wasn't here today, I would be cleaning up by myself."

Jody Molter, trailing the volunteers, including her twin daughters, Jhayda and Jayla Blake, noted, "They wanted to do it. They wanted to help out to keep the community neat and clean and presentable."

Cleanliness of water depends to a great extent on what goes into it from the surface, the young volunteers learned.

As county stormwater inspector John Burnett passed out bottles of spring water to the sweating youngsters, he explained: "If we try to keep (water) clean when it goes down there, we'll have less trouble with it when it comes up as drinking water."

The day's project, which ended with a pizza party, was part of an ongoing stormwater education effort, funded with an annual $5,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation and $5,000 from county coffers.

"We spend right up to the limit every year," Black said.

Contact Beth Gray at