Skip to main content
Engineering LibreTexts

8.6: Water Quality (Pollution)

  • Page ID
  • Water pollution is a major problem facing many of our surface water and groundwater sources. Contamination can both be natural due to geologic or meteorological events and anthropogenic (human causes). Human sources of contamination can be categorized as either point source or nonpoint source. Point-source pollution is water pollution coming from a single point, such as a sewage-outflow pipe. Non-point source (NPS) pollution is pollution discharged over a wide land area such as agricultural runoff and urban stormwater runoff, not from one specific location. Non-point source pollution contamination occurs when rainwater, snowmelt, or irrigation washes off plowed fields, city streets, or suburban backyards. As this runoff moves across the land surface, it picks up soil particles and pollutants, such as nutrients and pesticides.

    Types of Water Pollution

    Contamination of water resources comes in the form of chemical, biological, and physical pollution. Chemical pollution includes things such as toxic metals, organic compounds, acidic waters from mining activities and industry, pharmaceuticals and many other chemical compounds from industries and wastewater treatment plants. Another form of chemical pollution is radioactive waste which has a significant potential to cause harm to living things. Most of the radioactive pollution comes from agricultural practices such as tobacco farming, where radioactive phosphate fertilizer is used. Physical pollution includes sediment pollution, trash thrown in the water bodies, thermal and other suspended load. Temperature typically affects the metabolism of aquatic fauna in a negative way and can encourage eutrophication. Biological pollution usually refers to pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and parasitic protozoa. Common pathogenic microbes introduced into natural water bodies are pathogens from untreated sewage or surface runoff from intensive livestock grazing. Biological pollution is a common cause of illness and death in less industrialized countries where population density, water scarcity and inadequate sewage treatment combine to cause widespread parasitic and bacterial diseases.

    Sources of water pollution

    Most of the common inorganic chemical water pollutants are produced by non-point sources, mainly intensive agriculture, and high-density urban areas. Specific inorganic chemicals and their major sources are: ammonium nitrate and a host of related phosphate and nitrogen compounds used in agricultural fertilizers; heavy metals (present in urban runoff and mine tailings area runoff). However, some inorganic contaminants such as chlorine and related derivatives are produced from point sources, ironically employed in water treatment facilities. Moreover, some of the large dischargers of heavy metals to aquatic environments are fixed point industrial plants.

    High concentrations of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) in water can cause eutrophication. You are seeing this whenever you notice the greenish tint to the water in our local streams and rivers during low-flow times, or if you have ever seen a green farm pond. These nutrients are primarily coming from:

    • treated wastewater (laden with P and N) being dumped into the river from sewage plants,

    • agricultural areas where farmers allow livestock direct access to the stream, and

    • agricultural areas where there is intense fertilizer application, and from landscapes (homes, gardens, golf courses) with fertilizer runoff

    The N and P act as fertilizers in the water and promote algae blooms. As the algae dies, it is decomposed by aerobic bacteria in the water. These bacteria use up the oxygen in the water and the low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels can results in “fish kills” where large numbers of fish, and other aquatic life, die because of suffocation. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is a huge area of low DO that has a large negative impact on the fishing industry along the Gulf Coast near the mouth of the Mississippi River. The dead zone occurs annually when fertilizers, from farm fields in the Midwest, wash down the Mississippi river.

    Improper storage and use of automotive fluids produce common organic chemicals causing water pollution. These chemicals include methanol and ethanol (present in wiper fluid); gasoline and oil compounds such as octane, nonane (overfilling of gasoline tanks); most of these are considered non-point sources since their pathway to watercourses is mainly overland flow.

    However, leaking underground and above ground storage tanks can be considered point sources for some of these chemicals, and even more toxic organic compounds such as perchloroethylene. Grease and fats (such as lubrication and restaurant effluent) can be either point or non-point sources depending upon whether the restaurant releases grease into the wastewater collection system (point source) or disposes of such organics on the exterior ground surface or transports to large landfills.

    The most significant physical pollutant is excess sediment in runoff from agricultural plots, clear-cut forests, improperly graded slopes, urban streets, and other poorly managed lands, especially when steep slopes or lands near streams are involved. Other physical pollutants include a variety of plastic refuse products such as packaging materials; the most pernicious of these items are ring shaped objects that can trap or strangle fish and other aquatic fauna (Figure 8.4.6). Other common physical objects are timber slash debris, waste paper and cardboard. Finally, power plants and other industrial facilities that use natural water bodies for cooling are the main sources of thermal pollution.

    Groundwater can also become contaminated from both natural and anthropogenic sources of pollution. Naturally occurring contaminants are present in the rocks and sediments. As groundwater flows through sediments, metals such as iron and manganese are dissolved and may later be found in high concentrations in the water. Industrial discharges, urban activities, agriculture, groundwater withdrawal, and disposal of waste all can affect groundwater quality. Contaminants from leaking fuel tanks or fuel or toxic chemical spills may enter the groundwater and contaminate the aquifer. Pesticides and fertilizers applied to lawns and crops can accumulate and migrate to the water table.

    Leakage from septic tanks and/or waste-disposal sites also can contaminate ground water. A septic tank can introduce bacteria to the water, and pesticides and fertilizers that seep into farmed soil can eventually end up in water drawn from a well. Or, a well might have been placed in land that was once used as a garbage or chemical dump site.