Urban Stormwater Runoff
Field Trips and Activities
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By following the path of the stormwater that drains from Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, the students learn about their role in helping to keep Lake Pontchartrain clean. They begin by participating in stenciling some of the storm drains in their school neighborhood. The stencils say "DUMP NO WASTE; DRAINS TO LAKE," a message to those who habitually use storm drains to dispose of waste products such as used motor oil and yard care products. After stenciling, the students visit a pumping station. Here they learn about how their city is drained and protected from flooding. At the same time they see the trash that collects at the pumping station grates and learn how much work is needed to remove the trash. Later at the lake shore, they see where the canal enters the lake and view the trash that makes its way through the grates and washes up along the shore. The students participate in picking up some of the trash and filling out a "trash inventory" to assess the type and sources of the trash.

Urban Stormwater Activities

Map Study:

Comparing the present day situation of land drainage in Greater New Orleans with the situation 50 to 100 years ago will give students a perspective on the immensity of the task of draining Orleans and Jefferson Parishes and the reasons behind the special challenges faced by the two drainage districts.

  • Assign the students the task of researching changes in land use in their own neighborhood, finding out when the closest canal was built, how old the buildings are in the neighborhood, and other relevant information.
  • Have the students work in small groups to look at old and modern maps of the area. Each group can zoom in on a small portion of the modern map and, comparing that site on an old map, identify and list land use changes.
  • Ask the students to think about what effect this rapid development has had on the amount of water running off the land into the lake. For instance, ask, "Does concrete have the same properties for water absorption as a marsh?"
  • Have each group report on the specific changes in their area, outlining how they think the changes they observe have affected the lake.

Map Resources:

Jefferson Parish:

    Historical books about the area are a good source of maps. Historic Jefferson Parish From Shore to Shore by Betsy Swanson, published by Pelican Publishing Company; and Metairie: A Tongue of Land by Henry C. Bezou are two good Jefferson Parish histories.

    The Jefferson Parish Environmental Department has staff who have a wealth of information about the drainage system; call them about maps.

Jefferson and Orleans Parishes:

  • New Orleans Public Library is the depository for historical records, including maps of the whole city. A visit to the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Library on Loyola Avenue will turn up some very valuable information.

Orleans Parish:

  • The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board has information about the Orleans drainage system.
  • On your field trip to a New Orleans pumping station be sure to pick up the complimentary Sewerage and Water Board publication: Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans: How It Began,The Problems It Faces, The Way It Works, The Job It Does.
Making Pictoral Flow Diagrams:

The students illustrate the journey of a drop of rainwater or motor oil from the stormdrain they stenciled to the lake via the pumping station. These "maps" can take the form of a pictorial diagram similar to the one in The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks by Joanna Cole, which deals with water supply. The students can include themselves in the picture, writing captions that tell a story about the journey.

Urban Runoff Play:

In cooperative groups, the class can create plays to show the importance of keeping pollutants out of storm drains. The class should first brainstorm ideas for the plays. Then in cooperative groups they can choose parts and write lines. Roles in the cooperative groups can include script writer, director, special effects, actors. The students themselves should take the lead in deciding the content of the play based on what they learned on the field trip.

Rainstorm Poetry:

The drama of a major rainstorm is familiar to almost everyone. The students can brainstorm ideas and words associated with flood events or heavy rain, including what they imagine it might be like in the pumping stations. Using the words and ideas they gather, they can then write simple poetry such as "syntu."

A syntu is a five line poem written about a natural feature of the Earth. The emphasis is on the five senses.


  • Line 1 is the name of a natural feature: it has one word.
  • Line 2 is an observation about the natural feature in Line 1; it refers to one of the five senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste, or smell. There is no limit on the number of words.
  • Line 3 is a thought, feeling, or evaluation about the natural feature in Line 1. There is no limit to the number of words.
  • Line 4 is another observation about the natural feature in Line 1; it refers to a second sense, one that is different than the one in Line 2. There is no limit to the number of words.
  • Line 5 is a synonym for the natural feature in Line 1; it has one word.

Here is an example of a syntu:

Hear the rumbling thunder
Run outside!
Feel the cool raindrops

Rainstorm Music:

Using tapping fingers, clapping hands, stomping feet, and simple percussion instruments such as homemade rainsticks, the students can put their rain poetry to music and perform it.

Public Education Flyers:

The students can work in cooperative groups to develop a flyer to educate their school and community about wise practices to prevent pollution from entering the drainage system. They will need to research the issues and be sure they have the correct facts. Roles of graphic designer, artist, writer, and editor are needed to divide the tasks. To choose which of the flyers to use in a public education campaign in the neighborhood, the class could ask parents, other students, and faculty to judge a contest. When the winning flyer has been chosen, the students can put them around school, go out in the neighborhood to distribute them and to talk to the neighbors about their work.

Math at the Pumping Station:

The pumping station field trip provides opportunities for the students to calculate runoff statistics. The meteorologists give us statistics about the number of inches that fall in a day, month, and year. You can use simple math to calculate the volume (cubic inches or feet) of water that falls on your school grounds, trace this volume to the pump station, and ask questions about the volume of water handled there. The people at the pump station talk in terms of "cubic feet per second" (CFS).

Who can visualize what that means unless they work at a Pump Station?

illustration of a line of elephants

Well, here's one way to visualize 10,000 CFS

(the amount pump station Number 6 on the 17th Street Canal can handle):

10,000 CFS is equivalent to 74,800 gallons per second.

An elephant can take 3 gallons into its trunk at one time.

So you would need 2,493 elephants working continually to handle

the water this pump can pump into the lake!

Another way of visualizing these massive volumes is:

  • The New Orleans drainage system has the capacity to pump 29 billion gallons per day. Convert that to CFS (1 Cubic foot = 7.48 gallons); Challenge your students, "How many seconds are there in a day?"
  • This is enough to empty a lake 10 square miles by 13.5 feet deep ­ or roughly 3.2 miles by 3.2 miles by 13.5 feet deep - every 24 hours (about one sixth of Lake Pontchartrain ­- Lake Pontchartrain is 630 square miles by 12 feet deep).
Investigating Nutrient Pollution:

You can create a model aquatic environment in the classroom.

  1. Set up several jars of pond water a few weeks in advance and place them in the sun so that they contain some algal growth.
  2. Have the students bring in a variety of household products that they know get washed down the drains in the city. These y include fertilizer, detergent, pesticides, motor oil, or paint.
  3. Add a little of a pollutant to each jar, except for one (the control). You may also want to experiment with varying amounts of each pollutant.
  4. Ask the students to write predictions of the results.
  5. Design a data sheet on which the students record their observations.
  6. Draw conclusions.
  7. Follow­up discussion should relate the results to what happens in our own drainage system d the lake.
Lake Reflections:

After the students have learned how human activities are potentially harmful to Lake Pontchartrain, ask them to write a reflection on their role in maintaining the health of the lake for future generations. Begin with a discussion of the information they have received and a review of the field trip activities. Allow plenty of quiet, undisturbed time for private thoughts to flow and for the students to express their thoughts freely on paper, using text and/or visual representations.

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