Column By Kevin Zak

   After the recent blizzard of 2013 the state found itself making an unpleasant decision. They allowed towns and cities in the Naugatuck Valley to dump snow directly into the river to clear the streets.

   Before I try to answer the question whether we should be dumping snow in the river, let’s put a few things out on the table. The storm is over. The snow is all but gone, and in the river. This is the literal water under the bridge argument. The Mayors of Waterbury and Naugatuck were reacting to an uncommon weather event, their backs were up against the wall and the state bailed them out. However, it will snow again, and it will pile up to levels that will put the cities and towns back in the same situation in the future.

   Now is the time to plan for the next event.

   Another point to clarify is this columnist believed that in the first few days of the storm the snow was clean enough that dumping it directly into the water was the lesser of the evils. This action may have been needed to free the citizens of the grip of the blizzard. I do not know if there were any significant pollutants within the “fresh” snow that would have caused harm to the ecosystem within the Naugatuck River. I could not find any studies that proved different. At least in appearance, common sense would say it was alright.

   The main argument for dumping directly into the river is that the snow melts and already enters the river through the storm drain system.  What interested me was the media reaction, and the split in public reaction. People either think it is terrible, or it is no big deal.

    What was lost in the argument was an element regarding the difference of a catastrophic event verses many snow storms over the course of a particular winter. Two years ago we had similar problems of what to do with the snow that accumulated. I believe they are different circumstances, but each could be solved without putting the snow directly into the river. I part ways from the direct-to-the-river method as soon as trucks begin salting and cars are allowed on the streets.

   We can create a plan for future snow removal that will make this argument moot. The snow can be placed in areas where it will be treated to handle trash and debris, silt laden with pollutants such as heavy metals, and other pollutants such as hydrocarbons and salt. The easy fix is to install trash racks with filters in storm drains where the snow melt flows. These inceptors can capture approximately 90% of the pollutants as the snow melts naturally where it is piled.

   Every time we tap on a car’s brakes we release asbestos and, copper and other metals. These metals enter the river through our storm drains. Copper, for example, interferes with a fish’s ability to navigate and hide from predators. The accumulation of these pollutants along with road salt and hydrocarbons add up and only hurt the river and its already challenged ecosystem.

   The point here is there is a solution to the pollution we are delivering into the Naugatuck River. Why is it we almost always react to events that will happen instead of thinking ahead and be proactive? These problems are being solved in other parts of the country. Why are we ignoring something that will make all our lives better and generations to come will thank us for.

   Let me give you just a few examples of systems that solve these problems. The creative engineering of these separation devices that filter pollutants and debris is incredible. They are often retrofitted into existing storm drains with ease with maintenance well thought out.
   The next time you drive to the South Philadelphia Sports Complex for the Phillies, the Flyers, the 76ers, the Wings, and the Eagles, just know you will never notice the storm drain inlets in the parking lot. Their problem was solved in one day for an amazingly $10,000 investment while Waterbury spent over $65 million dollars on City Hall and Dugan School. It is even saving the agency responsible for the property tens of thousands of dollars a year. The next time you fly into the San Francisco and San Diego International Airports know they have solved their problem as well.

   We can save the Naugatuck River from ourselves and walk it into the future today. We can be on the cutting edge. All we need to do is be proactive, create a plan and follow through.  Not knowing there is a solution is no longer an excuse. You do not have to dump polluted snow into the river, or just put it into a parking lot like Municipal Stadium and let it melt into Steel Brook unfiltered.

   Is the question: To dump the snow in the river or not to dump the snow in the river? I believe this to be the wrong question. The question is how do you avoid this dilemma altogether?

   Will we be ready for next year’s snow? How about the year after that?  Now there is a question I hope the TV news asks me instead of asking me what I think about the State of Connecticut granting permission to dump the snow. I don’t blame the mayors of Waterbury and Naugatuck. They were in a state of emergency. What did they know of these separators or the possibility of being environmental champions? I wonder, now that we are entering spring, is the water just forgotten as it flows beneath the bridge?

(Kevin Zak is the founder of the Naugatuck River Revival Group)