May 27, 2002 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

If you see La Grande public works employees out applying small signs to the town's 1,000 catch basins, don't be alarmed.

The colorful signs encourage people to refrain from dumping material into the city's stormwater system.

The whole idea is to improve water quality for fish and wildlife.

Public awareness is one aspect of the federally mandated treatment of natural runoff water before it enters streams and rivers.

"We'll be working with various local organizations and other agencies, and city crews will be putting up the small signs on curbs near catch basins," said Norm Paullus, assistant public works superintendent.

The signs, with a photo of a salmon, read, "No Dumping! Drains to River."

If there is no curb nearby, the city will put up a small plate for the sign, he said.

There are 1,000 basins that catch the runoff of water in La Grande, and the purchase of the signs and the epoxy to adhere them will cost about $7,000, said Public Works Director Dan Chevalier.

The city is trying to be pro-active in meeting the federal mandates, Chevalier and Paullus said.

"By the end of summer, we should have developed a manual on the best management practices," Paullus said.

These likely will include a change in landscape standards or requirements for new development.

There are various kinds of plants that can be used to help seperate out things like phosphates, heavy metals and oils that collect in the stormwater as it runs off the land.

"We'll be encouraging existing businesses to try to meet these standards, but we're not going door -to-door on existing properties, using strong-arm tactics," said Chevalier.

For example, he said there was not a lot that downtown businesses could do to help improve the treatment of stormwater.

Paullus said he felt there would be easy acceptance by residents.

"I think our businesses and citizens are sympathetic to the eco system. They're aware and like the natural beauty around here. There's always more people requesting trees to plant than the city has budgeted for. I think people will want to support this program naturally."

Public Works will be looking at ways to improve water quality by developing a plan involving a pre-treatment process where efforts will be made to slow water down in channels as it progresses toward the river. There are several methods to do this, Paullus said.

There are four major issues of the stormwater pre-treatment processing, Paullus said. These deal with pollutants, volume of water, sediment and temperature.

"Most of these are centered on the salmon and wildlife issues," he said.

After a local committee is formed and reviews the plan, the city crews will be looking at a program to manage the water runoff, Paullus said. The city developed a stormwater master plan in 1998 and last year developed a stormwater ordinance.

"With the new federal mandates applicable, we will look at the size of the channels to see if we can do a lot of pre-treatment in the open lines to try to reduce the amount of treatment needed in the storage basin," Paullus said.

"Our goal is that stormwater not be discharged any quicker than it would if the area had remained in a natural, undeveloped stage," Paullus said.

"Water runs off impervious surfaces quickly, but improving and changing landscaping and vegetation can cut down on the pre-treatment needed," Paullus said.

Some ideas being explored include making design changes that would help collect water easier between sidewalks and streets, adding planter strips along the edge of parking lots, putting in filtration systems at manholes which would take out the pollutants, Paullus said.

The Public Works Department hasn't targeted the cost of such a project. Costs could range from $15 to $30 an acre up to $150 an acre, Chevalier said. There are 1,400 to 1,500 acres in the urban growth boundary.

There are 60 to 70 miles of storm drainage pipes in La Grande, Chevalier said.

"We will be developing a plan over time, but now we want to make people aware of the big scope of things, of the challenges that are ahead of us," Paullus said.