Water pollution in the United States

Since the 1960s, water quality in surface water bodies in the United States has generally improved, due to the implementation of the 1972 Clean Water Act. However, many water bodies are still being polluted from one or more categories of sources, which may include agriculture, industry, or urban runoff.

NRCSIA99134 - Iowa (2969)(NRCS Photo Gallery)
Topsoil runoff from farm, central Iowa, USA (2011).


Dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Since the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA), the levels of water pollution in the United States generally have experienced a dramatic decrease. The law has resulted in much cleaner waterways than before the law was implemented.[1]

However, more than half of U.S. stream and river miles continue to violate water quality standards. Surveys of lakes, ponds and reservoirs indicated that about 70 percent were impaired (measured on a surface area basis), and a little more than 70 percent of the nation’s coastlines, and 90 percent of the surveyed ocean and near coastal areas were also impaired.[2]

Agriculture, industry, communities (typically through urban runoff) and other sources continue to discharge waste into surface waters nationwide, and many of these waters are drinking water sources. In many watersheds nutrient pollution (excess nitrogen and phosphorus) has become a major problem.[3]

It is argued in a 2008 paper that the CWA has made extremely positive contributions to the environment, but that the law does not address some aspects of pollution well, or at all, and that Congress should revise or expand the law to address these problems.[4]

Municipal sewage

Sewage pollution, which had been a major national environmental issue into the 1970s, has largely been addressed through widespread public investment in infrastructure and enforcement of CWA requirements.[1]

Domestic sewage became a widespread problem with the onset of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, population growth and increasing urbanization. Through the early 20th century, most communities had no sewage treatment plants. Many cities built sewer pipes which carried the sewage to a nearby river or coastal area, but without any treatment of the wastes. The first plants that were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries typically did not fully treat the wastes.[5]

In the 1972 CWA, Congress created a major public works financing program for building and upgrading sewage treatment plants. This grant program was transitioned to a low-interest loan program in the 1987 amendments to the act.[6] Ideally, the municipal wastewater treatment process comprises three stages:

A tertiary treatment facility is typically four times more expensive to operate, compared to a secondary treatment system, so it is used only when absolutely necessary. Today over 75% of the population is served by more than 16,000 municipal sewage plants, and most treatment plants in the U.S. include secondary treatment components. Federal regulations require secondary treatment plants to remove 85% or more of the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and suspended solids.[8]:4 [9]

The methods of municipal sewage treatment in the United States produce a large amount of bacteria since the soluble organic matter is converted to biomass, which is also known as biosolids and these are applied to soils as fertilizers or source of water in the case of water effluents to improve soil productivity or enhance revegetation.[10] The land application of treated biosolids and effluent, which started to increase after the restriction to ocean dumping, helps reduce pollution particularly in areas where the surface water is not capable of assimilating elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus. The excessive amount of these chemical elements lead to pollution.[10]

With the widespread implementation of secondary treatment technology, water quality has greatly improved in many watersheds nationwide.[1] However, many municipal plants are being challenged to confront some significant remaining problems:

  • Many cities have combined sewers, which can cause discharges of untreated sewage during large storms.[8]:7
  • Many plants discharge nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), which are only partially controlled by secondary treatment processes.[8]:8 Some of these plants have additional systems to treat nutrients (tertiary treatment), but additional control for nutrients is a continuing concern in communities nationwide.[11]

Urban runoff

P3030027ParkingLot wb
Parking lots, roads and buildings are major sources of urban runoff

A growing body of water research during the late 1970s and 1980s indicated that stormwater runoff was a significant cause of water quality impairment in many parts of the US.[12] Increased land development throughout the country—in both cities and suburbs—has led to an increase in impervious surfaces (parking lots, roads, buildings, compacted soil), which generates increased surface runoff during wet weather. Congress responded to the stormwater problem with the enactment of the Water Quality Act of 1987. The law defines industrial stormwater dischargers and municipal separate storm sewer systems (often called "MS4") as point sources, and requires these facilities to obtain discharge permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).[13]

National Map of Regulated MS4s 2009
Map of municipal separate storm sewer systems

To implement the 1987 law, thousands of local governments established stormwater management programs. Each regulated municipality developed standard program elements as required by EPA regulations:

About 855 large municipal stormwater systems (serving populations of 100,000 or more), and 6,695 small systems are regulated by the permit system.[16]

While the industrial and MS4 facilities are now regulated through NPDES permits, stormwater management in communities is an ongoing challenge. A 2008 report by the United States National Research Council identified urban runoff as a leading source of water quality problems: "Stormwater runoff from the built environment remains one of the great challenges of modern water pollution control, as this source of contamination is a principal contributor to water quality impairment of waterbodies nationwide. In addition to entrainment of chemical and microbial contaminants as stormwater runs over roads, rooftops, and compacted land, stormwater discharge poses a physical hazard to aquatic habitats and stream function, owing to the increase in water velocity and volume that inevitably result on a watershed scale as many individually managed sources are combined."[17]

As of 2018, EPA and state water quality agencies have estimated that urban runoff is a probable source of impairment for at least 49,000 miles (79,000 km) of rivers and streams; 759,000 acres (3,070 km2) of lakes, reservoirs and ponds; and 316 miles (509 km) of coastal shoreline.[18]

Pollution incidents

Polluted water bodies (partial list)

Industrial waste discharged into the Cuyahoga River, Ohio (1973).

See also

Summary information
Clean Water Act programs
Specific topics


  1. ^ a b c Water Pollution Control: 25 years of Progress and Challenges for the New Millennium (Report). Washington, D.C.: United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). June 1998. EPA 833-F-98-003.
  2. ^ "National Summary of State Information". Water Quality Assessment and TMDL Information. EPA. Retrieved 2018-05-21.
  3. ^ "Nutrient Pollution: The Problem". EPA. 2017-03-10.
  4. ^ Andreen, William L.; Jones, Shana C. (July 2008). The Clean Water Act: A Blueprint For Reform (PDF) (Report). Edgewater, MD: Center for Progressive Reform. CPR White Paper #802.
  5. ^ Metcalf & Eddy, Inc. (1972). Wastewater Engineering. New York: McGraw–Hill. pp. 4–6.
  6. ^ Copeland, Claudia (2012-04-05). Water Infrastructure Financing: History of EPA Appropriations (PDF) (Report). U.S. Congressional Research Service.
  7. ^ Smith, Zachary (2017). The Environmental Policy Paradox. Routledge. ISBN 9781317226628.
  8. ^ a b c Primer for Municipal Wastewater Treatment Systems (Report). Washington, D.C.: EPA. 2004. EPA 832-R-04-001.
  9. ^ EPA. "Secondary Treatment Regulation." Code of Federal Regulations, 40 C.F.R. 133.102
  10. ^ a b Gerba, Charles; Brusseau, Mark (2006). Environmental and Pollution Science. Burlington, MA: Academic Press. p. 452. ISBN 9780125515030.
  11. ^ "Sources and Solutions: Wastewater". Nutrient Pollution. EPA. 2018-01-30.
  12. ^ For example, see the Nationwide Urban Runoff Program (1979-83).
  13. ^ United States. Water Quality Act of 1987, Pub.L. 100–4. February 4, 1987. Added Clean Water Act section 402(p), 33 U.S.C. § 1342(p).
  14. ^ "Stormwater Discharges from Municipal Sources". NPDES. EPA. 2018-04-04.
  15. ^ EPA. NPDES Program Regulations. §122.26: Storm water discharges. §122.34: Permit requirements for regulated small MS4 permits. Code of Federal Regulations, 40 C.F.R. 122.26 and 40 C.F.R. 122.34.
  16. ^ "Overview". NPDES / Stormwater Discharges from Municipal Sources. EPA. 2018-04-04.
  17. ^ National Research Council (United States) (2009). Urban Stormwater Management in the United States (Report). Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. p. vii. doi:10.17226/12465. ISBN 978-0-309-12539-0.
  18. ^ "National Probable Sources Contributing to Impairments". National Summary of State Information. EPA. Retrieved 2018-11-30.
  19. ^ "Report: Ohio River most polluted in U.S." Pittsburgh Business Times. March 23, 2012. Retrieved April 24, 2012.
  20. ^ Coleman, Dash. "Report calls Savannah River third most toxic in America".

External links


Aerojet was an American rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer based primarily in Rancho Cordova, California, with divisions in Redmond, Washington, Orange and Gainesville in Virginia, and Camden, Arkansas. Aerojet was owned by GenCorp. In 2013, Aerojet was merged by GenCorp with the former Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne to form Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Anderson v. Cryovac, Inc.

Anderson v. Cryovac was a federal lawsuit concerning toxic contamination of groundwater in Woburn, Massachusetts.

Caribbean Princess

MS Caribbean Princess is a modified Grand Class cruise ship owned and operated by Princess Cruises, with a capacity of over 3,600 passengers, the largest carrying capacity in the Princess fleet until June 2013 when the new Royal Princess, another Princess ship superseded its record. She has 900 balcony staterooms and a deck of mini-suites. She was the first modern cruise ship with an outdoor theater, which Princess bills as "Movies Under The Stars".Caribbean Princess is slightly larger than the other ships in her class (Star Princess, Golden Princess, and Grand Princess), due to an additional deck of cabins called the Riviera deck. Another difference is that, being initially designed to cruise the Caribbean year-round, there is no sliding roof over the pool area for shelter in poor weather.

Discharge Monitoring Report

A Discharge Monitoring Report (DMR) is a United States regulatory term for a periodic water pollution report prepared by industries, municipalities and other facilities discharging to surface waters. The facilities collect wastewater samples, conduct chemical and/or biological tests of the samples, and submit reports to a state agency or the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). All point source dischargers to ”Waters of the U.S.” must obtain a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from the appropriate agency, and many permittees are required to file DMRs.

Dukeville, North Carolina

Dukeville, North Carolina is a populated place in Rowan County, North Carolina.

It was built as a mill village along the banks of the Yadkin River in 1926 to house plant employees of the Buck Steam Station, owned by Duke Energy.In 2014, residents living near the Buck Steam Station in Dukeville were told that "coal ash pits near their homes could be leaching dangerous materials into groundwater." The issue became a documentary film for the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Effluent guidelines

Effluent Guidelines (also referred to as Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELGs)) are U.S. national standards for wastewater discharges to surface waters and publicly owned treatment works (POTW) (also called municipal sewage treatment plants). The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issues Effluent Guideline regulations for categories of industrial sources of water pollution under Title III of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The standards are technology-based, i.e. they are based on the performance of treatment and control technologies (e.g., Best Available Technology). Effluent Guidelines are not based on risk or impacts of pollutants upon receiving waters.Regulated pollutants range from acenaphthene to zinc, with maximum allowed contamination levels in discharge water (wastewater) varying by industry. The regulations cover pollutants for which there are approved analytical testing methods. EPA has published many methods in its regulations, and has approved the use of other methods published by peer-reviewed sources, such as Standard Methods. In the early years of the program (1970s-1980s) the agency published methods for a list of 126 "priority pollutants," consisting of various toxic pollutants. Subsequently the agency has issued methods and regulated pollutants beyond those in the initial priority list.Since the mid-1970s, the EPA has promulgated ELGs for 59 industrial categories, with over 450 subcategories. Effluent Guidelines currently control pollution at approximately 40,000 facilities that discharge directly to the nation's waters, 129,000 facilities that discharge to POTWs, and construction sites. The regulations annually prohibit the discharge of 700 billion pounds of pollutants into U.S. surface waters. EPA periodically reviews the existing industrial regulations and occasionally updates an existing category or adds a new category.Effluent Guidelines are implemented in water discharge permits issued to facilities through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

In Our Water

In Our Water is a 1982 American documentary film directed by Meg Switzgable, about a family in South Brunswick, New Jersey, who discover their drinking water is contaminated by a nearby landfill. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, nominated for an Emmy Award and won a Columbia/DuPont Award for Journalistic Excellence.

Lockheed Corporation

The Lockheed Corporation was an American aerospace company. Lockheed was founded in 1926 and later merged with Martin Marietta to form Lockheed Martin in 1995. The founder, Allan Lockheed, had earlier founded the similarly named but otherwise unrelated Loughead Aircraft Manufacturing Company, which was operational from 1912 through 1920.

Nationwide Urban Runoff Program

The Nationwide Urban Runoff Program (NURP) is a research project conducted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) between 1979 and 1983. It was the first comprehensive study of urban stormwater pollution across the United States.

New Source Performance Standard

New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) are pollution control standards issued by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The term is used in the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970 (CAA) to refer to air pollution emission standards, and in the Clean Water Act (CWA) referring to standards for water pollution discharges of industrial wastewater to surface waters.

Publicly owned treatment works

A publicly owned treatment works (POTW) is a term used in the United States for a sewage treatment plant that is owned, and usually operated, by a government agency. In the U.S., POTWs are typically owned by local government agencies, and are usually designed to treat domestic sewage and not industrial wastewater.

The term is used extensively in U.S. water pollution law (i.e. the Clean Water Act), regulations and programs. Many POTWs were established or expanded with grants or low-interest loans from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).There are over 16,000 POTWs in the U.S., serving 75 percent of the total population. The remainder of the population is served by decentralized or private septic systems. The POTWs treat 32 billion US gallons (120 gigalitres) of wastewater every day. Most POTWs are required to meet national secondary treatment standards.

Staten Island Bluebelt

The Staten Island Bluebelt (also known simply as Bluebelt), is a large scale system of stormwater best management practices (BMPs) that have been under construction on Staten Island, New York, since the early 1990s. The Bluebelt includes structural and nonstructural stormwater management control measures taken to mitigate changes to both quantity and quality of runoff caused through changes to land use.

Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board

The Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (TSSWCB) is a state agency of Texas, headquartered in Temple. The agency enforces the state's soil and water conservation laws and coordinates conservation and nonpoint source pollution abatement programs. The Texas State Legislature created the agency in 1939.

The Appeal

The Appeal is a 2008 novel by John Grisham, his twentieth book and his first fictional legal thriller since The Broker was published in 2005. It was published by Doubleday and released in hardcover in the United States on January 29, 2008. A paperback edition was released by Delta Publishing on November 18, 2008.

The Devil We Know

The Devil We Know is a 2018 investigative documentary film by director Stephanie Soechtig regarding allegations of health hazards from Teflon, and the DuPont corporation's potential responsibility. It includes footage of public hearings, news reports and corporate ads, along with input from scientists and activists. The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.The director, Soechtig, has also produced similar documentary exposés including Tapped (2009), about the pollution caused by bottled water, Fed Up (2014), dealing with the obesity-promoting food industry, and Under the Gun (2016), about the gun lobby.

The Gifts

The Gifts is a 1970 American short documentary film about water pollution in the United States. The film was produced by Robert McBride for the United States Environmental Protection Agency. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.

Total maximum daily load

A Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) is a regulatory term in the U.S. Clean Water Act, describing a plan for restoring impaired waters that identifies the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive while still meeting water quality standards.

Water Environment Federation

The Water Environment Federation (WEF) is a not-for-profit technical and educational organization of more than 34,000 individual members and 75 Member Associations (MAs) representing water quality professionals around the world. WEF, which was formerly known as the Federation of Sewage Works Associations and later as the Water Pollution Control Federation, and its members have protected public health and the environment since 1928. As a global water sector leader, the organization's mission is to connect water professionals; enrich the expertise of water professionals; increase the awareness of the impact and value of water; and provide a platform for water sector innovation. WEF members include experts and specialists in the fields of:

environmental engineering

industrial wastewater treatment

sewage treatment and sewage sludge treatment

stormwater management

water quality analysis and planningand related disciplines.WEF is headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, United States.


Waterlife is a 2009 documentary film and web documentary about the state of the Great Lakes. It was directed by Kevin McMahon.

Water pollution by country

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