Preventing Pollution with Public Art

April 26, 2023

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To celebrate Earth Month, local artists have created storm drain murals around the Town of Chapel Hill. This is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Town’s Stormwater and Community Arts & Culture departments to creatively illuminate how storm drains connect to our local waterways.  “Storm drains are totally separate from the sanitary sewer system,” explains Sammy Bauer, the Community Education Coordinator for Stormwater. “When it rains, the water that goes into these storm drains flows to Jordan Lake through our rivers and streams, and these murals invite people to consider our water system and the downstream impacts of our actions.”

The direct connection between storm drains and local waterways means that they are a point of vulnerability for water pollution. Anything that washes down these storm drains, whether it’s litter, pet waste, sediment from erosion, or soapy water from car washes, flows into the Jordan Lake Watershed. This is an important source of drinking water for the Triangle, and ensuring that only rain goes down storm drains helps to maintain the quality of the water that’s used every day.  “We all live and work in a watershed,” says Mike Piehler, whose roles at UNC Chapel Hill include professor, Director of the UNC Institute for the Environment, Chief Sustainability Officer, and Special Assistant to the Chancellor. “Understanding where you are and the impacts of your activities is critical to sustaining our water resources.”

The storm drain mural project was developed to educate the community about water pollution by capturing attention with art. “We hope that this art project educates folks about how storm drains are separate from our sewer system, inspires them to protect our local waterways, and brings some beauty and delight to their daily lives,” says Steve Wright, the Public Art Coordinator for Community Arts & Culture.

The storm drain murals are part of an initiative that began in 2022 with local artists painting pavement murals at Northside Elementary, Southern Village Park and Ride, and the Chapel Hill Public Library. New storm drain murals have been added to North Columbia Street, the public entrance of Town Hall, the Airport Garden Public Housing Community, and in front of Boro Beverage on Rosemary Street.

Four artists were selected from a public call based on artistic excellence and a style well-suited for the storm drain mural project. “Sustainability is the underpinning of a lot of my work, so this project has been very exciting. I try to use a combination of linear and representational imagery to create work that speaks to a shared community vision in an abstract way,” says Anna Payne Rogers Previtte, the muralist for Rosemary Street.  Jesse White, the muralist for North Columbia Street, is proud to create art that can educate the community about the water system. “It’s easy to forget that our community is part of a dynamic ecosystem that includes both the natural and built environment,” reflects White. “Our actions have a direct impact on the plants and animals around us: we are like pieces of a living, breathing puzzle.”

This project was made possible through a collaboration between the Town of Chapel Hill’s Stormwater and Community Arts & Culture departments. You can learn more about water pollution prevention and the Town’s Stormwater division here and learn more about Community Arts & Culture here. 

See The Murals