Storm drain murals could reduce pollution in Cedar Rapids, officials say

Artists must apply by March 26

Water pools around a storm drain on a paved road in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Water pools around a storm drain on a paved road in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A handful of boring old storm drains soon will be anything but boring.

Seven drains in the downtown area soon will become canvasses for paint and artistic expression as city leaders, with the help of students and downtown advocates, seek to dress them up in the name of beautification and to raise awareness about water pollution.

“Not only to beautify but educate,” said Molly Sofranko, a teacher for Iowa BIG who is involved in the project. “Whatever goes down storm drains ends up in the river without any other filtration or cleaning.”

The city of Cedar Rapids is working with the project-based high school program in which students from Cedar Rapids, Prairie and Linn-Mar school districts earn credits based on community-service projects and with the Cedar Rapids Downtown District on the “Storm Drain Mural Project.”

Artists can submit design proposals communicating the value of keeping storm drains clear of pollutants by March 26, selections will be made April 20 and painting will occur the week of May 14 through 18. An ending celebration will be May 18.

More information about how to apply can be found online at

Upon successful completion, artists will receive a $400 stipend per mural.

“We were looking for a fun way to combine downtown art with water quality education,” Eric Holthaus, Cedar Rapids sustainability coordinator, said in a statement. “The Iowa BIG students we’re working with really responded to this idea and have played a crucial role in bringing the project together.”

Drains have become “hot spots for illicit dumping — grease, paint, cigarettes and more,” and that impacts aquatic life, recreational life and drinking water, city officials noted. River pollution contributes to the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, in which limited oxygen has created a condition known as hypoxia, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.


Five students are involved in the project — three plan to submit an application to paint a drain and the other two will judge the submissions. Sofranko said they heavily researched issues related to pollution and what other communities have done — Richmond, Va., for example, has gained attention for its storm drain murals — and planned the initiative.

“It appealed to their sense of beautifying the community and being involved in something so creative and so unusual,” Sofranko said of selecting the project.

Melissa McCarville, spokeswoman for the Downtown District, said their team played a role in connecting the city and the students and helping.

“We are feeling this is a win-win,” she said. “It engages the community through local artists and Iowa BIG, raises awareness about water quality and sustainability initiatives, and adds to our beautification efforts.”

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