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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 21:21 EDT

Stop Driveway Carwashes, Wash. Says

September 29, 2008

By William M. Welch

Along with wild salmon and steelhead trout, the Pacific Northwest soon may have another endangered species: the driveway carwash.

Washing your car or boat in the driveway or street is a residential ritual as American as backyard barbecues. But the state of Washington is telling its local governments they must prohibit home car washing unless residents divert the wash water away from storm drains, where they say it causes water pollution.

“I understand this is something people have done for a long time,” says Bill Moore, water quality specialist with the state Department of Ecology, which is requiring the ban. “It’s not something we should be doing any longer.”

Some residents defiant

The soapy runoff is toxic to salmon and other fish, and the small metal particles that wash off cars, such as brake dust, is harmful, too, he says.

Unlike public sanitary sewer systems that clean wastes from water, storm drain systems in most communities empty straight into streams and eventually rivers and oceans.

“Clearly, you cannot dump your bucket of wash water, or as you are hosing down your car, you’re not supposed to allow that into a storm drain,” says Kim Schmanke, spokeswoman for the department.

Mark Muhlhauser, 41, who washes his Toyota Highlander nearly every weekend outside his Vancouver, Wash., home, has a simple message for regulators: Come get him.

“I will wash it this weekend,” he says defiantly. “It’s just totally crazy. I don’t think anybody’s going to follow it. Everybody I’ve talked to, they’re still planning on washing their cars.”

He gets sympathy from Brian Carlson, public works director for Vancouver, a city of 160,000 people just across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore. He says that the city is being ordered by state Ecology Department officials to pass an ordinance banning carwash runoff by next year, but that neither he nor other city officials intend to do so.

“We don’t think it’s realistic,” Carlson says.

City ordinances specifically allow home car washing and its runoff into storm drains, he says. City officials support an education campaign that urges people to “be sensitive and be careful” when washing a vehicle.

“But an outright ban that puts something on the books that’s unrealistic to enforce just doesn’t make any sense,” Carlson says.

“And we would not enforce it,” he says. “We’re not going to go around ticketing people for car washing.”

That’s not the case in King County, home to the state’s biggest city, Seattle.

Curt Crawford, manager of the storm water services section for the county, says the county is writing a proposed ordinance now to ban home car washing if the runoff goes into storm drains. He expects it to pass this fall and says it has local support.

“We just don’t want soapy wash water going out into streams (to) kill fish,” he says.

Washington state environmental officials insist they aren’t banning home car washing — just the runoff into storm drains, Moore and Schmanke say. They say residents will still be able to wash cars on lawns or gravel driveways where water will soak in the ground. Residents can wash on pavement if they install barriers to prevent wash water from going into storm sewers.

Those aren’t workable alternatives, some say. Dave Anderson, half of the Mark and Dave radio team on KEX radio in Portland.

“I don’t put in an effort to make my driveway nice, and that’s where I’m going to wash my car,” Anderson says.

Moore and Schmanke say the state’s Department of Ecology is requiring the ordinances as a condition for issuing water runoff permits to cities and counties. Moore says it is acting under authority of the federal Clean Water Act and does expect local governments to enforce it.

“If folks fail to comply, the Department of Ecology has a number of tools we can use,” he says. “We can issue orders, notice of violations, and, if necessary, penalties to local governments that fail to issue ordinances.”

Officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say federal law does not require that Washington or any other state take such a step.

Federal vs. state laws

Misha Vakoc, storm water permit coordinator for the Pacific Northwest region, says residential carwash runoff is allowed in storm drain systems under federal law but that states are permitted to go beyond the standard.

Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, responded to questions about the prohibition by saying the governor has spoken with state Ecology Director Jay Manning, and his department will “fix the problem in a way that will still allow people to wash their cars while still protecting our waters.”

A day later, Manning issued a statement saying, “It has recently become apparent that there is significant confusion” about residential car washing. He repeated alternatives: washing over grass or diverting wash water away from drains. “Another option is to use a commercial carwash,” the statement says.

Mark Thorsby, executive director of the International Carwash Association, the industry trade group of 25,000 commercial carwashes, says it supports the prohibition. Its members install sometimes-expensive equipment to minimize water use and prevent pollution, he says. Because of that, commercial carwashes wouldn’t be affected by the proposal.

“A ban on home carwashing would benefit an industry like mine, but that’s not a motivation behind what regulators are doing,” he says.

Muhlhauser has a different view.

“It’s just infringement on your rights to live a normal life,” he says. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>