Surface Water Management Division
Pollution Investigation & Technical Assistance Program
Reporting Water Pollution: A Citizen's Guide
What is the Problem?
Water pollution comes from a variety of sources. It is economically unfeasible to have pollution inspectors everywhere 24 hours a day. However, citizen reporting of pollution problems can help fill gaps in water quality protection.
How Citizens Can Help
Your observations can help federal, state, and local officials investigate and prosecute if necessary, pollution of local waters. By taking good notes, and perhaps a picture or two, you can help local authorities respond to pollution when it is occurring. Follow the link below to fill out a water quality complaint form.
The Basics of Good Reporting
The following are good practices to follow for reporting a potential pollution problem and for providing information that will be helpful to the follow-up investigator.
Take good notes. A good set of notes will provide a complete and accurate set of facts for others. Use the following as a checklist when reporting a suspicious event:
- Location of observation.
- Time/date of your observation.
- Does it occur at a certain time? (e.g., everyday at 6:00 a.m.?)
- Could you determine the source?
- How did the water look?
- Did you observe any dead fish?
- Are there any odors?
- Were there other witnesses?
Take photographs. Photographic evidence can be very valuable in establishing the presence of pollution, especially where erosion problems exist. When taking photographs, remember to record the time, date, and location that the photo was taken. Wherever possible, try to include an established landmark so that the location of the pollution problem cannot be challenged. Digital photos are very helpful to investigators in understanding the location and severity of certain discharges.
About Taking Samples. DON'T! Because of the potential for personal injury from contact with dangerous chemicals or entry into unsafe environments, sample collection should be left to local authorities.
Things to Watch For. Be careful, safety first, do not attempt anything dangerous. Do not sample unknown liquids.
Where We Need Your Help
Typical problems you can identify and report for further investigation include:
A sudden threat to human health or the environment is an environmental emergency. Examples include spills of raw sewage, gasoline, chemicals, or radioactive discharge. Because of the potential for the presence of hazardous gases and other serious threats, do not attempt to document an environmental emergency. Immediately report the location of the event to 911.
Wherever land clearing activities are taking place there is a potential for erosion. Erosion clogs streams and suffocates fish. If you see brown, sediment-laden water entering a ditch or stream, it should be reported.
Farmers reapply manure as fertilizer during the growing season. If you observe manure being sprayed during the winter or oversprayed onto roadways or into local streams or ditches, report this. If you observe manure from equestrian facilities that can be polluting a creek, report this.
Spills of oil and other petroleum products can be harmful for both people and fish. (Note that gasoline spills are listed under "Emergency Situations". Be careful in approaching these pollutants to protect your personal health and safety. The Washington State Department of Ecology and Snohomish County's Surface Water Source Control Program should do any close investigations of these pollutants types.
Mysterious…But Not Dangerous
There are a few "not-so-obvious" situations where natural conditions create what appear to be serious pollution problems. Examples include:
- Iron oxide discharges. When oxygen poor, iron rich water surfaces, the iron becomes oxidized. This orange precipitate, iron oxide, helps support stringy algal growth, which is also orange. Much or all of a stream bottom and edge can turn orange in color from this growth.
- Foam. It is normal for some creeks to have a small amount of foam. The foam is caused by proteins and is not a pollution indicator. If you see handfuls of suds, it is probably due to soap, not this natural cause.
- Tannins and lignins. These natural compounds are derived from leaves and other organic materials and turn water a deep brown tea-like color. Some healthy water bodies have this color due to the presence of deciduous leafy material or a peat bog upstream.
How Your Information be Used
Local governments have different policies on how to respond to pollution events. Your information alerts local authorities and may lead to additional collection of evidence and possible enforcement. Most agencies consider technical assistance first before penalizing a polluter. All responses are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and generally consider:
Past history of the violator
Impact on the environment
Was the violation done knowingly
Local authorities cannot promise that staff will be available to respond to all calls, but your information will be used to prioritize resources when constraints exist.
Report a Pollution Problem
Use the Online Water Quality Complaint Form
or Call the Water Quality Hotline: 425-388-6481
you can report anonymously