Laci M. Gerhart Barley

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Storm Drains

In the Spring of 2005, as a junior at the University of Kansas, I took Principles of Environmental Studies from Dr. Chris Brown. Initially, I only took the course as a prerequisite for the Environmental Law course I planned to take the following semester, but I soon found myself absorbed in the class and looking at the world a little differently than I had before, coming from a strictly natural science educational background. I vividly remember Dr. Brown’s enthusiasm in the classroom and a few of his more quotable and exciting discussion points have stuck with me in the decade since that class.

One of those memorable points was Dr. Brown’s use of storm drain labels as an example of how dissociated human society has become from the natural world. It is somewhat disheartening that people need obvious reminders that the drain down which they dump refuse actually goes somewhere, and that other organisms live in that ‘somewhere’ and must suffer the consequences of our trash. From a more positive perspective, storm drain labels perhaps show that we are at least trying to minimize our negative impacts on the natural world and make better decisions with our daily activities.

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Following Dr. Brown’s class, I began to pay attention to storm drains and the labels they do (or in some areas do not – which is also telling) carry to remind people not to dump waste. After a few years, I began to photograph the drains, and to pay attention to their style and rhetoric. For example, many storm drain labels contain images of local wildlife, or perhaps name the body of water to which the tunnel drains. Some rhyme, or contain cute cartoonish drawings, or more detailed artwork. All, however, remind people to consider what goes down the drain, and where it goes.

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In perhaps the most impressive display, the state of Arkansas has created a storm drain mural project called UpStream Art, in which semi-permanent murals are painted on public storm drains to draw awareness to the function and importance of storm drains. Already, UpStream Art has painted murals throughout Fayetteville, Springdale, and Bentonville. They are beautiful and I hope other states build on their example.

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My current home of Honolulu has the most impressive diversity of storm drain labels that I have yet seen. My personal favorites are the ones including an image of the state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a. Honolulu even puts drain labels on the beach showers warning beach-goers against the use of soap.

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Is there a storm drain in your area that is not represented in my collection? I am always looking to expand the collection and would welcome photos of new storm drains. If you would like to contribute, you can email the photo along with a description of its location to lacimanette@gmail.com