Nonpoint source pollution

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Nonpoint source (NPS) pollution is a term used to describe pollution resulting from many diffuse sources, in direct contrast to point source pollution which results from a single source. Nonpoint source pollution generally results from land runoff, precipitation, atmospheric deposition, drainage, seepage, or hydrological modification (rainfall or snowmelt) where tracing the pollution back to a single source is difficult.[1]

Non-point 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. Non-point 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 non-point source of pollution. Non-point 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 may change to rectify the problem, making it difficult to regulate. Non point source water pollution is difficult to control because it comes from the everyday activities of many different people, such as lawn fertilization, applying pesticides, road construction or building construction.[2]

It is the leading cause of water pollution in the United States today, with polluted runoff from agriculture and hydromodification the primary sources.[3]:15 [4]

Other significant sources of runoff include habitat modification and silviculture (forestry).[5][6]

Contaminated stormwater washed off 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 water bodies. Some may flow directly into water bodies, especially in developing and suburban areas. Also, unlike other types of point sources, such as industrial discharges, sewage treatment 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 non-point sources as municipalities work to abate them.

Muddy USGS
Muddy river

Principal types

Runoff of soil %26 fertilizer
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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]


Nonpoint Source Pollution
Nonpoint source pollution is caused when precipitation (1) carries pollutants from the ground such as nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) pollutants which come from fertilizers used on farm lands (2) or urban areas (3). These nutrients can cause eutrophication (4).

Nutrients mainly refers to inorganic matter from runoff, landfills, livestock operations and crop lands. The two primary nutrients of concern are phosphorus and nitrogen.[10]

Phosphorus is a nutrient that occurs in many forms that are bioavailable. It is notoriously over-abundant in human sewage sludge. 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 and some estuaries. Phosphorus is most often transported to water bodies via soil erosion because many forms of phosphorus tend to be adsorbed on to soil particles. Excess amounts of phosphorus in aquatic systems (particularly freshwater lakes, reservoirs, and ponds) leads to proliferation of microscopic algae called phytoplankton. The increase of organic matter supply due to the excessive growth of the phytoplankton is called eutrophication. A common symptom of eutrophication is algae blooms that can produce unsightly surface scums, shade out beneficial types of plants, produce taste-and-odor-causing compounds, and poison the water due to toxins produced by the algae. These toxins are a particular problem in systems used for drinking water because some toxins can cause human illness and removal of the toxins is difficult and expensive. Bacterial decomposition of algal blooms consumes dissolved oxygen in the water, generating hypoxia with detrimental consequences for fish and aquatic invertebrates.

Nitrogen is the other key ingredient in fertilizers, and it generally becomes a pollutant in saltwater or brackish estuarine systems where nitrogen is a limiting nutrient. Similar to phosphorus in fresh-waters, excess amounts of bioavailable nitrogen in marine systems lead to eutrophication and algae blooms. Hypoxia is an increasingly common result of eutrophication in marine systems and can impact large areas of estuaries, bays, and near shore coastal waters. Each summer, hypoxic conditions form in bottom waters where the Mississippi River enters the Gulf of Mexico. During recent summers, the aereal extent of this "dead zone" is comparable to the area of New Jersey and has major detrimental consequences for fisheries in the region.

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.[9] These contaminants can come from a variety of sources including human sewage sludge, mining operations, vehicle emissions, fossil fuel combustion, urban runoff, industrial operations and landfills.[10]

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 water-bodies. 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.[9] These toxic chemicals could come from croplands, nurseries, orchards, building sites, gardens, lawns and landfills.[10]

Acids and salts mainly are inorganic pollutants from irrigated lands, mining operations, urban runoff, industrial sites and landfills.[10]


Pathogens are bacteria and viruses that can be found in water and cause diseases in humans.[9] 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.[9] These bacteria are a commonly used indicator of water pollution, but not an actual cause of disease.[11]

Pathogens may contaminate runoff due to poorly managed livestock operations, faulty septic systems, improper handling of pet waste, the over application of human sewage sludge, contaminated storm sewers, and sanitary sewer overflows.[7][9]

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.[12]

Construction sites 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.[12]

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 water bodies, 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.[12]

Atmospheric inputs

Atmospheric inputs of pollution into the air can come from multiple sources. Typically, industrial facilities, like factories, emit air pollution via a smokestack. Although this is a point source, due to the distributional nature, long-range 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.[12]

Highway runoff

Highway runoff accounts for a small but widespread percentage of all nonpoint source pollution.[13][14][15][16][17][18] Harned (1988) estimated that runoff loads were composed of atmospheric fallout (9%), vehicle deposition (25%) and highway maintenance materials (67%) he also estimated that about 9 percent of these loads were reentrained in the atmosphere.[19]

Forestry and mining operations

Forestry and mining operations can have significant inputs to non-point source pollution.


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


Active mining operations are considered point sources, 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.[12]

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.[12]


Contour buffer strips NRCS
Contour buffer strips used to retain soil and reduce erosion

Urban and suburban areas

To control non-point 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 contaminants 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 drains 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.[12]

In areas served by single-home septic systems, local government regulations can force septic system maintenance to ensure compliance with water quality standards. In Washington (state), a novel approach was developed through a creation of a "shellfish protection district" when either a commercial or recreational shellfish bed is downgraded because of ongoing nonpoint source pollution. The shellfish protection district is a geographic area designated by a county to protect water quality and tideland resources, and provides a mechanism to generate local funds for water quality services to control nonpoint sources of pollution.[20] At least two shellfish protection districts in south Puget Sound have instituted septic system operation and maintenance requirements with program fees tied directly to property taxes.[21]

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.[4]:pp. 4-95–4-96[22][23] 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.[12]

Nutrients 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.[4]:p. 2–9 Farmers can develop and implement nutrient management plans to reduce excess application of nutrients.[4]:pp. 4-37–4-38[24]

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.[25][26]

Forestry operations

With a 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.[12]


Installing shut off valves on fuel pumps at a marina dock can help reduce the amount of spillover into the water. Additionally, pump-out stations that are easily accessible to boaters in a 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 a marina can prevent larger objects entering the water.[12]

See also


  1. ^ "What is Nonpoint Source?". Polluted Runoff. Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2017-05-02.
  2. ^ "Management Program for Nonpoint Source Water Pollution". Austin, TX: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. 2017-08-22.
  3. ^ National Water Quality Inventory: Report to Congress; 2004 Reporting Cycle (Report). EPA. January 2009. EPA 841-R-08-001.
  4. ^ a b c d National Management Measures to Control Non-point Source Pollution from Agriculture (Report). EPA. July 2003. EPA 841-B-03-004.
  5. ^ National Management Measures to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution from Hydromodification (Report). EPA. July 2007. EPA 841-B-07-002.
  6. ^ National Management Measures to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution from Forestry (Report). EPA. May 2005. EPA 841-B-05-001.
  7. ^ a b Iowa State University. University Extension. Ames, IA. "Iowa Fact Sheet: Agriculture and Water Quality." October 2001. Document No. EDC232a.
  8. ^ Stevenson, J. Court; Piper, Catherine B.; Confer, Nedra (1979). Decline of Submerged Plants in Chesapeake Bay (Report). Annapolis, MD: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved 2017-10-08.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Penn State University. Pennsylvania Lake Erie NEMO. "Nonpoint Source Pollution." Archived 2011-07-27 at the Wayback Machine..
  10. ^ a b c d Rob Leeds, Larry C. Brown, Nathan L. Watermeier. "Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering." Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet.
  11. ^ U.S. Geological Survey. Reston, VA. "A Primer on Water Quality." FS-027-01. March 2001.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). Washington D.C. "Nonpoint Source Pollution" September 2007.
  13. ^ Gupta, M.K., Agnew, R.W., Gruber, D., and Kreutzberger, W.A., 1981, Constituents of highway runoff, in v. IV, Characteristics of runoff from operating highways—Research report: "Federal Highway Administration Report FHWA/RD–81/045", 171 p.
  14. ^ Driscoll, E.D., Shelley, P.E., and Strecker, E.W., 1990, Pollutant loadings and impacts from highway stormwater runoff, v. III—Analytical investigation and research report: "Federal Highway Administration Report FHWA–RD–88–008", 160 p.
  15. ^ Young, G.K., Stein, Stuart, Cole, Pamela, Kammer, Traci, Graziano, Frank, and Bank, F.G., 1996, Evaluation and management of highway runoff water quality: Federal Highway Administration Report FHWA–PD–96–032, 480 p.
  16. ^ Granato, G.E., Bank, F.G., and Cazenas, P.A., 2003, Data quality objectives and criteria for basic information, acceptable uncertainty, and quality-assurance and quality-control documentation, in Granato, G.E., Zenone, Chester, and Cazenas, P.A., eds., National highway runoff water-quality data and methodology synthesis, v. I—Technical issues for monitoring highway runoff and urban stormwater: "Federal Highway Administration Report FHWA–EP–03–054", p. 3–21.
  17. ^ Granato, G.E., and Cazenas, P.A., 2009, Highway-runoff database (HRDB version 1.0)—A data warehouse and preprocessor for the Stochastic Empirical Loading and Dilution Model: "Federal Highway Administration Report FHWA–HEP–09–004" 57 p.
  18. ^ Smith, K.P., and Granato, G.E., 2010, Quality of stormwater runoff discharged from Massachusetts highways, 2005–07: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5269, 198 p., with CD–ROM.
  19. ^ Harned, D.A., 1988, Effects of Highway Runoff on Streamflow and Water Quality in the Sevenmile Creek Basin, a Rural Area in the Piedmont Province of North Carolina, July 1981 to July 1982: "U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2329" 105 p.
  20. ^
  21. ^ "PHSS HomeA-Z TopicsPrograms/Serv". Retrieved 2014-01-14.
  22. ^ U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Fort Worth, TX. National Conservation Practice Standard: Contour Farming." Code 330. June 2007.
  23. ^ NRCS. National Conservation Practice Standard: Mulching." Code 484. September 2008.
  24. ^ NRCS. "National Conservation Practice Standard: Nutrient Management." Code 590. August 2006.
  25. ^ NRCS. National Conservation Practice Standard: Pest Management." Code 595. July 2008.
  26. ^ EPA. "Integrated Pest Management Principles." March 13, 2008.

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