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Water Pollution and Its Sources

written by
Ashlee Haviland

The health of our water resources is linked to our well-being – treating them with a sense of long-term environmental responsibility is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also a matter of public health. In this article, Clarke’s Certified Lake Manager and Watershed Expert, Ashlee Haviland, walks through the definitions, causes, and prevention of water pollution.

What is Water Pollution?

Water pollution occurs when contaminants – in the form of debris, trash, chemicals, bacteria, microorganisms and more – enter waterbodies such as lakes, streams, oceans or aquifers. Pollution can also be found in U.S. drinking water, including hard metals and other alloys. In addition to pollutants that directly enter water sources, land and air pollution can eventually settle onto or sink into these same waterbodies.

It is also important to note that these contaminants affect not only humans but other forms of life, including fish, macroinvertebrates and plants. Pollution can also contribute to high nutrient levels within the water, leading to the development of algae and possibly harmful algae blooms (HABs).

Although water naturally works to filter out and dissolve potentially harmful contaminants, as humans and large animals pump greater amounts of synthetic and natural waste into the environment, it becomes increasingly difficult for water to filter these out. As a result, water resources could become toxic and require remediation or become non-consumable for human and animal use.

A retention pond near a community, a point of entry for water pollution

How Do Pollutants Enter Waterbodies?

Pollutants can enter a water source in many ways. In addition to the seepage and settling methods discussed above, rainfall, storm events, lawn sprinklers, car washing and more can wash pollutants into waterbodies. They may also be dumped directly – such as recreational water users dumping fuel or sewage in water rather than the appropriate receptacles -filtered through inadequate water treatment facilities or leaked in from oil refineries, underground storage tanks and fracking.

Regardless of how it enters our waterbodies, pollution affects us globally as waterbodies are interconnected. Therefore, when one area is affected by pollution, other regions can also become affected.

Primary Sources of Water Pollution

Rural Development and Agriculture

As one would expect, the development and agriculture sectors need to consume a significant portion of the world’s water for expansion, building, farming and livestock. Byproducts like sediment, chemicals, animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides can end up in all types of waterways, including groundwater, when not properly managed.

Without proper management, this pollution could have long-term negative impacts that could lead to harmful algae blooms, drinking water contamination, and increased bacteria growth in private wells and water treatment plants.

A small farm alongside a stream - a potential source of water pollution

Sewage and Other Wastewater

Commercial and industrial activities utilize a large quantity of water in their operations. That wastewater may contain dangerous chemicals and contaminants that can find their way into mainstream water sources when not disposed of properly.

Additionally, motor vehicles can give off dirt, oil, and other debris along our roads and highways. Those contaminates can then get swept away by rainwater or snowmelt into storm drains that end up in our waterways.

Other Water Pollutants

Of course, there are unique scenarios that, while uncommon, should be kept in mind.

For example, you may hear about major oil spills that impair entire fish communities and impact wildlife. Although these are rare occurrences, they can still pose significant and extensive impairments that can be felt for many years after the incident. While unpredictable, these events can lead to better management of equipment and resources to lessen the overall environmental impact.

Leaking underground storage tanks are another example of water contamination that can impair water quality and human health. While rare, petroleum-based pollutants can negatively impact water sources, water treatment plants, water associations, stormwater utilities, wetlands, humans, and livestock.

Puddles of water with oil spread across them

What can be Done to Decrease Water Pollution?

At an individual level, there are plenty of steps you can take to help reduce contaminants:

  • Avoid pouring chemicals – including those from household cleaners – down the household drains or street drainage systems
  • Have your water checked for lead and other heavy metal or bacterial contamination
  • Do not pour oil or other chemicals into drainage systems
  • Use fertilizer and insecticides as needed and avoid unnecessary applications or overuse
  • Collect and prevent grass clippings and leaves from entering waterways
  • Dispose of animal waste properly

At a larger level, it’s important to advocate for the proper management and treatment of your local water sources, often nearby lakes, ponds and streams.

Associations, HOAs, and property managers with waterbodies – whether they are retainment ponds, lakes or otherwise – should have management plans in place that incorporate water quality monitoring to help mitigate the effects of pollutants (as well as other facets which affect water) on their waterbodies. You can learn more about what water quality is and what goes into its management here.

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