Nonpoint source pollution

Nonpoint source pollution
Muddy river polluted by sediment. Photo courtesy of United States Geological Survey.

Nonpoint source (NPS) pollution refers to both water and air pollution from diffuse sources. Nonpoint source water pollution affects a water body from sources such as polluted runoff from agricultural areas draining into a river, or wind-borne debris blowing out to sea. Nonpoint source air pollution affects air quality from sources such as smokestacks or car tailpipes. Although these pollutants have originated from a point source, the long-range transport ability and multiple sources of the pollutant make it a nonpoint source of pollution. Nonpoint source pollution can be contrasted with point source pollution, where discharges occur to a body of water or into the atmosphere at a single location.

NPS may derive from many different sources with no specific solution to rectify the problem, making it difficult to regulate. It is the leading cause of water pollution in the United States today, with polluted runoff from agriculture the primary cause.[1][2]

Other significant sources of runoff include hydrological and habitat modification, and silviculture (forestry).[3][4]

Contaminated stormwater washed off of parking lots, roads and highways, and lawns (often containing fertilizers and pesticides) is called urban runoff. This runoff is often classified as a type of NPS pollution. Some people may also consider it a point source because many times it is channeled into municipal storm drain systems and discharged through pipes to nearby surface waters. However, not all urban runoff flows through storm drain systems before entering waterbodies. Some may flow directly into waterbodies, especially in developing and suburban areas. Also, unlike other types of point sources, such as industrial discharge, wastewater plants and other operations, pollution in urban runoff cannot be attributed to one activity or even group of activities. Therefore, because it is not caused by an easily identified and regulated activity, urban runoff pollution sources are also often treated as true nonpoint sources as municipalities work to abate them.


Principal types

Runoff of soil and fertilizer during a rain storm.


Sediment (loose soil) includes silt (fine particles) and suspended solids (larger particles). Sediment may enter surface waters from eroding stream banks, and from surface runoff due to improper plant cover on urban and rural land[5] Sediment creates turbidity (cloudiness) in water bodies, reducing the amount of light reaching lower depths, which can inhibit growth of submerged aquatic plants and consequently affect species which are dependent on them, such as fish and shellfish.[6] High turbidity levels also inhibit drinking water purification systems.

Sediment can also be discharged from multiple different sources. Sources include construction sites (although these are point sources, which can be managed with erosion controls and sediment controls), agricultural fields, stream banks, and highly disturbed areas.[7]


Nutrients mainly refers to organic matter from runoffs, landfill, livestock operation and corp lands, etc. It mainly include Phosphorus and Nitrogen.[8]

Phosphorus is a nutrient that occurs in many forms that are bioavailable. It is a main ingredient in many fertilizers used for agriculture as well as on residential and commercial properties, and may become a limiting nutrient in freshwater systems. Excess amounts of phosphorus in these systems lead to algae blooms and consequently hypoxia (in saltwater bodies) and eutrophication (in freshwater bodies). Phosphorus is most often transported to water bodies via soil erosion forms of phosphorus tend to be adsorbed to soil particles.

Nitrogen is the other key ingredient in fertilizers, and it becomes a pollutant in saltwater systems where nitrogen is a limiting nutrient. Excess amounts of bioavailable nitrogen in these systems lead to a bloom of algae and diatoms. When the excessively large population of autotrophs reach the end of their life cycles, the process of decomposition consumes oxygen. The result is very suppressed levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, otherwise known as hypoxia.

Nitrogen is most often transported by water as nitrate (NO3). The nitrogen is usually added to a watershed as organic-N or ammonia (NH3), so nitrogen stays attached to the soil until oxidation converts it into nitrate. Since the nitrate is generally already incorporated into the soil, the water traveling through the soil (i.e., interflow and tile drainage) is the most likely to transport it, rather than surface runoff.

Toxic contaminants and chemicals

Compounds including heavy metals like lead, mercury, zinc, and cadmium, organics like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), fire retardants, and other substances are resistant to breakdown.[7] These contaminants can come from a variety of sources including mining operations, vehicle emissions, fossil fuel combustion, urban runoff, industrial operations and landfills.[8]

Toxic chemicals mainly include organic compounds and inorganic compounds. These compounds include pesticides like DDT, acids, and salts that have severe effects to the ecosystem and waterbodies. These compounds can threaten the health of both humans and aquatic species while being resistant to environmental breakdown, thus allowing them to persist in the environment.[7] These toxic chemicals could come from croplands, nurseries, orchards, building sites, gardens, lawns and landfills.[8]

Acids and salts mainly are inorganic pollutants from irrigated lands, mining operations, urban runoffs, industrial sites and landfills.[8]


Pathogens are bacteria and viruses that can be found in water and cause diseases in humans.[7] Typically, pathogens cause disease when they are present in public drinking water supplies. Pathogens found in contaminated runoff may include:

Coliform bacteria and fecal matter may also be detected in runoff.[7] These bacteria are a commonly used indicator of water pollution, but not an actual cause of disease.[9]

Pathogens may contaminate runoff due to poorly managed livestock operations, faulty septic systems, improper handling of pet waste, contaminated storm sewers, and sewer overflow.[5][7]

Principal sources

Urban and suburban areas

Urban and Suburban Areas are a main sources of nonpoint source pollution due to the amount of runoff that is produced due to the large amount of paved surfaces. Paved surfaces, such as asphalt and concrete are impervious to water penetrating them. Any water that is on contact with these surfaces will run off and be absorbed by the surrounding environment. These surfaces make it easier for stormwater to carry pollutants into the surrounding soil.[10]

Construction sites located in urban and suburban areas tend to have disturbed soil that is easily eroded by precipitation like rain, snow, and hail. Additionally, discarded debris on the site can be carried away by runoff waters and enter the aquatic environment.[10]

Typically, in suburban areas, chemicals are used for lawn care. These chemicals can end up in runoff and enter the surrounding environment via storm drains in the city. Since the water in storm drains is not treated before flowing into surrounding waterbodies, the chemicals enter the water directly.

Agricultural operations

Agricultural operations account for a large percentage of all nonpoint source pollution in the United States. When large tracts of land are plowed to grow crops, it exposes and loosens soil that was once buried. This makes the exposed soil more vulnerable to erosion during rainstorms. It also can increase the amount of fertilizer and pesticides carried into nearby bodies of water.[10]

Atmospheric inputs

Atmospheric inputs of pollution into the air can come from multiple sources. Typically, industrial facilities, like factories, discharge pollution via a smokestack. Although this is a point source of pollution, due to the distributional nature, long-rage transport, and multiple sources of the pollution, it is considered a nonpoint source. Additionally, atmospheric pollution can become water pollution by being washed out of the atmosphere in the form of rain or snow.[10]

Forestry and mining operations

Forestry and mining operations can have significant inputs to nonpoint source pollution.


Forestry operations reduce the number of trees in a given area, thus reducing the soil stability in that area as well. This action, coupled with the heavy machinery rolling over the soil increases the risk of erosion.


Active mining operations are considered point sources of pollution, however runoff from abandoned mining operations contribute to nonpoint source pollution. In strip mining operations, the top of the mountain is removed to expose the desired ore. If this area is not properly reclaimed once the mining has finished, soil erosion can occur. Additionally, there can be chemical reactions with the air and newly exposed rock to create acidic runoff. Water that seeps out of abandoned subsurface mines can also be highly acidic. This can seep into the nearest body of water and change the pH in the aquatic environment.[10]

Marinas and boating activities

Chemicals used for boat maintenance, like paint, solvents, and oils find their way into water through runoff. Additionally, spilling fuels or leaking fuels directly into the water from boats contribute to nonpoint source pollution. Nutrient and bacteria levels are increased by poorly maintained sanitary waste receptacles on the boat and pump-out stations.[10]


Contour buffer strips used to retain soil and reduce erosion.

Urban and suburban areas

To control for nonpoint source pollution, many different approaches can be undertaken in both urban and suburban areas. Buffer strips provide a barrier of grass in between impervious paving material like parking lots and roads, and the closest body of water. This allows the soil to absorb any pollution before it enters the local aquatic system. Retention ponds can be built in drainage areas to create an aquatic buffer between runoff pollution and the aquatic environment. Runoff and storm water drain into the retention pond allowing for the contaminates to settle out and become trapped in the pond. The use of porous pavement allows for rain and storm water to drain into the ground beneath the pavement, reducing the amount of runoff that drain directly into the water body. Restoration methods such as constructing wetlands are also used to slow runoff as well as absorb contamination.

Construction sites typically implement simple measures to reduce pollution and runoff. Firstly, sediment or silt fences are erected around construction sites to reduce the amount of sediment and large material draining into the nearby water body. Secondly, laying grass or straw along the border of construction sites also work to reduce nonpoint source pollution.[10]

Agricultural operations

To control sediment and runoff, farmers may utilize erosion controls to reduce runoff flows and retain soil on their fields. Common techniques include contour plowing, crop mulching, crop rotation, planting perennial crops and installing riparian buffers.[2]:pp. 4-95–4-96[11][12] Conservation tillage is a concept used to reduce runoff while planting a new crop. The farmer leaves some crop reside from the previous planting in the ground to help prevent runoff during the planting process.[10]

Nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) are typically applied to farmland as commercial fertilizer; animal manure; or spraying of municipal or industrial wastewater (effluent) or sludge. Nutrients may also enter runoff from crop residues, irrigation water, wildlife, and atmospheric deposition.[2]:p. 2-9 Farmers can develop and implement nutrient management plans to reduce excess application of nutrients.[2]:pp. 4-37–4-38[13]

To minimize pesticide impacts, farmers may use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques (which can include biological pest control) to maintain control over pests, reduce reliance on chemical pesticides, and protect water quality.[14][15]

Forestry operations

With well planned placement of both logging trails, also called skid trails, can reduce the amount of sediment generated. By planning the trails location as far away from the logging activity as possible as well as contouring the trails with the land, it can reduce the amount of loose sediment in the runoff. Additionally, by replanting trees on the land after logging, it provides a structure for the soil to regain stability as well as replaces the logged environment.[10]


By installing shut off valves on fuel pumps at the dock, it can help reduce the amount of spillover into the water. Additionally, pump-out stations that are easily accessible to boaters in the marina can provide a clean place in which to dispose of sanitary waste without dumping it directly into the water. Finally, something as simple as having trash containers around the marina can prevent large objects from entering the water.[10]

See also


  1. ^ U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Washington, D.C. "National Water Quality Inventory: Report to Congress; 2002 Reporting Cycle." October 2007. Document No. EPA-841-R-07-001.
  2. ^ a b c d EPA. "National Management Measures to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution from Agriculture." July 2003. Document No. EPA 841-B-03-004.
  3. ^ EPA. National Management Measures to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution from Hydromodification." July 2007. Document No. EPA 841-B-07-002
  4. ^ EPA. "National Management Measures to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution from Forestry." May 2005. Document No. EPA 841-B-05-001.
  5. ^ a b Iowa State University. University Extension. Ames, IA. "Iowa Fact Sheet: Agriculture and Water Quality." October 2001. Document No. EDC232a.
  6. ^ J. Court Stevenson, Catherine B. Piper and Nedra Confer (1979). "Decline of Submerged Plants in Chesapeake Bay." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Annapolis, MD.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Penn State University. Pennsylvania Lake Erie NEMO. "Nonpoint Source Pollution.".
  8. ^ a b c d Rob Leeds, Larry C. Brown, Nathan L. Watermeier. "Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering." Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet.
  9. ^ U.S. Geological Survey. Reston, VA. "A Primer on Water Quality." FS-027-01. March 2001.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). Washington D.C. "Nonpoint Source Pollution" September 2007.
  11. ^ U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Fort Worth, TX. National Conservation Practice Standard: Contour Farming." Code 330. June 2007.
  12. ^ NRCS. National Conservation Practice Standard: Mulching." Code 484. September 2008.
  13. ^ NRCS. "National Conservation Practice Standard: Nutrient Management." Code 590. August 2006.
  14. ^ NRCS. National Conservation Practice Standard: Pest Management." Code 595. July 2008.
  15. ^ EPA. "Integrated Pest Management Principles." March 13, 2008.

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