Chapel Hill storm drain mural project aims to highlight waterways under threat

January 26, 2022

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By Grant Alexander for The Daily Tar Heel 
Photo by Corinna Collins

Storm drains in Chapel Hill will soon have a new look.

The Community Arts & Culture division of the Town is selecting artists to paint 6-foot murals on the areas surrounding the drains. The designs are intended to be themed around the environment in an effort to help protect local waterways.

“We hope the storm drain murals call attention to the best stormwater management practices and beautify the streetscapes of Chapel Hill,” Chapel Hill Public Art Coordinator Steve Wright said.

Waterways under threat

Nearly all of Chapel Hill storm drains are emptied into the Jordan Lake Watershed, a 1,687-square-mile area in central North Carolina. The watershed serves a variety of purposes, including providing clean drinking water for nearly 700,000 Triangle residents, hosting a diverse ecosystem of plant and animal species, serving as flood control for regions downstream and keeping the air clean.

Point source pollution, or direct deposits of wastewater, is the primary worry for Michael Piehler, a professor in the Department of Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences and director of the UNC Institute for the Environment.

“The export of nutrients and sediments in the form of organic matter from the areas which form the watershed are the issue,” he said.

Storm drains are a cause of point source pollution. Point source dischargers make up nearly 50 percent of the total nitrogen and 25 percent of the total phosphorus loadings into Jordan Lake.

Piehler said the reservoir’s nutrient composition is “a Goldilocks situation” — the right balance is needed.

“When you have too many nutrients available, nuisance species tend to take advantage of them,” he said.

Piehler said the resulting algal blooms can be toxic, disrupt food webs and lead to low water oxygen levels.

Emily Sutton, riverkeeper for the Haw River Assembly, said in an email that the problems with Chapel Hill water quality aren’t only a result of nutrients and sediments.

Pollutants from cars, roads, fertilizers, pesticides and larger litter can also be threats, Sutton said. Additionally, an increase in the volume and velocity of stormwater can cause stream banks to erode.

Piehler said Jordan Lake consistently exceeds the standards outlined in the Clean Water Act.

What can residents do?

Piehler said that on an individual level, people should work to minimize their fertilizer use, watch what they put down their drains and avoid raking leaves.

“Awareness is critical and advocacy of legislation is important, but individual action is vital as well,” he said.

Sutton said residents can advocate for better stormwater protections and buffers.

“There are also opportunities to engage in comment letters or annual water quality standards reviews,” she said in an email. “Though these actions may seem trivial, it makes a huge difference when we have voices of community members reaching out to their representatives fighting for water protections.”

Murals set to come

Lou Lindsley, a first-year at UNC, said he is excited about the murals and the intentions behind them.

“I love seeing local artists’ work while walking around Chapel Hill, and the fact that it’s supporting a good cause makes it even better,” he said.

The project’s application, which was open to artists living within a 40-mile radius of Chapel Hill, closed Monday. Applicants will hear back in February, and those who are selected will receive $1,300 to develop a design with stakeholder input.

The mural installations are scheduled to take place during March and April, and the project is intended to be completed by Earth Day, April 22.