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Water pollution overview

Water pollution is the contamination of water by an excess amount of a substance that can cause harm to human beings and the ecosystem. The level of water pollution depends on the abundance of the pollutant, the ecological impact of the pollutant, and the use of the water. Pollutants are derived from biological, chemical, or physical processes. Although natural processes such as volcanic eruptions or evaporation sometimes can cause water pollution, most pollution is derived from human, land-based activities (see Figure Water Pollution ). Water pollutants can move through different water reservoirs, as the water carrying them progresses through stages of the water cycle (see Figure Sources of Water Contamination ). Water residence time (the average time that a water molecule spends in a water reservoir) is very important to pollution problems because it affects pollution potential. Water in rivers has a relatively short residence time, so pollution usually is there only briefly. Of course, pollution in rivers may simply move to another reservoir, such as the ocean, where it can cause further problems. Groundwater is typically characterized by slow flow and longer residence time, which can make groundwater pollution particularly problematic. Finally, pollution residence time can be much greater than the water residence time because a pollutant may be taken up for a long time within the ecosystem or absorbed onto sediment.

photograph of water pollution
Water Pollution Obvious water pollution in the form of floating debris; invisible water pollutants sometimes can be much more harmful than visible ones. Source: Stephen Codrington at Wikimedia Commons

Diagram showing contamination to water can come from many sources
Sources of Water Contamination Sources of some water pollutants and movement of pollutants into different water reservoirs of the water cycle. Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Pollutants enter water supplies from point sources , which are readily identifiable and relatively small locations, or nonpoint sources , which are large and more diffuse areas. Point sources of pollution include animal “factory” farms that raise a large number and high density of livestock such as cows, pigs, and chickens (see Figure A Commercial Meat Chicken Production House ) and discharge pipes from a factories or sewage treatment plants. Combined sewer systems that have a single set of underground pipes to collect both sewage and storm water runoff from streets for wastewater treatment can be major point sources of pollutants. During heavy rain, storm water runoff may exceed sewer capacity, causing it to back up and spilling untreated sewage into surface waters (see Figure Combined Sewer System ). Nonpoint sources of pollution include agricultural fields, cities, and abandoned mines. Rainfall runs over the land and through the ground, picking up pollutants such as herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer from agricultural fields and lawns; oil, antifreeze, car detergent, animal waste, and road salt from urban areas; and acid and toxic elements from abandoned mines. Then, this pollution is carried into surface water bodies and groundwater. Nonpoint source pollution, which is the leading cause of water pollution in the U.S., is usually much more difficult and expensive to control than point source pollution because of its low concentration, multiple sources, and much greater volume of water.

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Source:  OpenStax, Sustainability: a comprehensive foundation. OpenStax CNX. Nov 11, 2013 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11325/1.43
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