Laughing, sopping-wet teenagers swoop around the cars pulling into the parking lot. It's another of those ubiquitous charity car washes designed to raise money for the youths' team or organization.
But the groups may be doing more harm than good, says Corey Campbell, president of the Puget Sound Car Wash Association, an industry group.
Who's suffering? The region's salmon, Campbell says. His view mirrors that of a growing chorus of government and environmental leaders.
While car windows may gleam for the first time in months and the paint finally may be free of dirt and debris, all that soapy and oily water can stream down the street, into a gutter, down a storm drain and into a creek, he said.
Moreover, the release of such sediments into an unfiltered system, such as storm drains, is illegal under the state's water-quality law.
"We have to educate the public," Campbell said. "They're trying to do a good thing, but what they're doing is wrong."
Campbell and other commercial car-wash owners have a self-interest in attracting people to their own filtered facilities, of course.
But Campbell's association also has set up an alternative fund-raising program that lets charities keep earning money. And government officials and environmental groups say the car-wash owners have a point: Runoff from unprotected washing is one of a number of sources of pollution that can kill fish.
Meanwhile, special car-wash kits are available from local
government agencies that help filter runoff from the amateur washes.
"Car washes are an old habit, and they are something that seems benign. It's going to take time for people to become aware," said Ron Langley, spokesman for the state Department of Ecology.
Car washes held in supermarket, restaurant and some gas-station parking lots can release water mixed with oil, gasoline and sediments into unfiltered drains that empty directly into rivers, lakes, creeks, streams and Puget Sound. Storm drains are used on those sites to accommodate large amounts of rainwater.
Commercial car washes limit their water use and disperse sediments and waste into the sewer system, which filters the water, Campbell said.
Polluted runoff not only can degrade water quality, but the phosphorus in the soap can spur algae growth, which in turn depletes the oxygen in the water that salmon need.
Moreover, debris kills bugs living on top of the water, reducing the salmon's food source, noted Maureen Meehan, water-quality analyst for Snohomish County's Department of Public Works.
"Washing your car seems so small when you look at it individually, but they add up . . . and it is a concern," Meehan said.
The commercial washes can help. "This is just one of dozens of things that people do that has an indirect effect on salmon," said John Sayre, executive director of Northwest Chinook Recovery, a private environmental organization based in Woodinville.
Tom Murdoch, founder of the Adopt-A-Stream Foundation, a nonprofit environmental group based near Mill Creek, said people's rule of thumb should be: "Don't put anything down the storm drain you wouldn't want to drink."
In an effort to educate the public and businesses on the damage that home-driveway and charity car washing can do, the Puget Sound Car Wash Association has produced informational brochures and created a program that allows nonprofit organizations to raise money while protecting the environment.
The nonprofit groups can sell car-wash tickets to the public, which can be redeemed at one of 40 association-member car washes in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The association suggests the tickets be sold for $6, $3 of which goes back to the business group. (Organizations are free to set their own ticket prices, as long as $3 a ticket goes back to the association.)
"We're not here to take away from charities," Campbell said. "What we want to do is give them another alternative."
The program is 4 years old, and more than 70 organizations have participated, Campbell said.
In Tacoma, the St. Joseph Medical Center kidney-dialysis unit raised $700 in two months after selling 200 tickets, said Katrina Meier, a hospital social worker and member of the patient-staff advisory board. The board, which raises money for patient activities, turned to the Car Wash Association after a time-consuming and unsuccessful car wash of its own last year, she said.
"People like the fact it's environmentally friendly and that they can use the ticket whenever they want to," she said.
The King County Department of Natural Resources provides car-wash kits to groups that wish to hold their own car washes.
Similar kits are available to Snohomish County residents from the Water Surface Management Division of the Snohomish County Department of Public Works.
The kits work this way: A small box with a pump can be placed in the storm drain; the pump is screwed into the sewer line, diverting the used water into the sewer system.
It is not illegal for individuals to wash their cars at home, but Doug Rice, a King County Natural Resources Department spokesman, suggested that cars be washed on grass or a gravel surface to help filter out sediments.
Even if groups hold charity car washes at unfiltered sites, they are unlikely to be fined, though fines could reach a maximum $10,000 a day, depending on the group's intent and degree of knowledge of the violation.
"Penalties are a very inefficient way to get compliance," said Langley, the Ecology Department spokesman. "Our goal is not to get money for the state. Our goal is to help the environment."
Langley said education and encouraging groups to find alternative fund-raising plans are more effective than fines.
"Our challenge is to make sure they know the right thing to do environmentally," he said.
Sara Gonzalez's phone-message number is 425-745-7800. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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For information on the Puget Sound Car Wash Association's alternative fund-raising program, call 206-622-8425.
King County residents can call the county Department of Natural Resources 206-296-6519 for car-wash-kit information.
Snohomish County residents can call the county Water Surface Management Division at 425-388-6476 or 425-388-4533 for similar information.