Art for awareness: Muralists adorn Milton storm drains

Two Milton storm drains now have works of art with a message: Think twice about what flows to Lake Champlain.

The murals, located at the intersection of Route 7 and Main Street, and on Center Drive across from Kinney Drugs, were painted on Monday, and coordinated through the Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District, as part of the of the Rethink Runoff campaign. 

In its sixth year, the campaign invites artists to submit designs that would draw attention to lake pollution and send a message of stewardship for the lake. Once two artists are elected, they are paid a $250 stipend after completing their mural. This year, St Albans resident Jessi Zawicki [Disclosure: Jessi is married to Milton Independent reporter Neil Zawicki], a freelance illustrator and mural artist, and Milton resident Erin Schmitt, an art teacher at Essex High School, were selected. 

The mural campaign is a group effort through the municipalities of Burlington, Colchester, Essex, Essex Junction, Milton, Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston and Winooski. Those nine cities have runoff systems that include impervious pavement and concrete, and storm drains emptying to a major waterway, which requires a permit and regular audits through the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. The municipalities pooled their funding and partnered with the WNRCD to pay for the mural project.

Schmitt created an image of the alleged lake monster Champ, surrounded by litter floating in the water, accompanied by the slogan “Only rain in the drain.” Schmitt said she connects most with the animal life in the lake, and wanted to have Champ be a part of her mural. 

Zawicki created a large flow of water emerging from the drain, filled with fish of different shapes and sizes, with the words, “Drains to Champlain,” scrawled next to the image. She said she wanted her mural to have an interactive quality, inviting kids and even grown-ups to use it sort of like a hopscotch court, where they could leap from fish to fish.

Kristen Balschunat, a conservation specialist with the conservation district, and coordinator for the mural project, said the murals are just one aspect of a larger campaign to change the habits of water users, but a crucial one. She said runoff awareness is important because most of the pollution to Lake Champlain comes from “non point source pollution,” meaning the pollution comes from the collective action of residents, rather than from one large source, such as an industrial plant or a factory.

Balschunat also said the storm drains are important because there is no filtration between them and the lake itself. 

While the murals are meant to remind people about runoff, she also wants residents to work to change their habits when it comes to everyday life. To this end, residents are encouraged to either install rain barrels or redirect their rain gutters so that the runoff does not run straight to the curb, through which the water picks up pollutants. 

Picking up dog waste is also key, said Balschunat, because such waste contributes algae creating phosphorous as well as E. coli to the lake. 

Reducing or avoiding using non-organic fertilizers is also discouraged, and residents are encouraged to wash their vehicles at a commercial spot or on their lawns, which reduces the opportunity for motor oils or detergents to end up in the waterway.

“Everyone’s contributing a little,” said Balschunat. “It’s important for people to remember they are all part of the whole.”

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