Drinking Water | 4 MIN READ

An Elementary Look at Water Pollution

June 24, 2024 By David Bullington, Technical Assistance Provider, SERCAP
Draining sewage from pipe into river pollution rivers and ecology

Water is the most precious resource on the planet. Our rivers, lakes, and oceans make up seventy-one percent of the earth’s surface; no one can live without water, but clean and fresh water is becoming harder to find.

Water pollution occurs when harmful chemicals or microorganisms get into a river, lake, ocean, or aquifer, making it toxic to humans or the environment. Water is known as the universal solvent, it dissolves more substances than any other liquid, including those harmful to life.

Chemicals, waste, and other pollutants are contaminating our waterways. Some eighty percent of the world’s wastewater is dumped untreated back into the environment, diminishing our drinking water sources. Throughout the United States, potentially harmful contaminants such as arsenic, copper, and lead have been found in tap water. These substances occur naturally but are the result of manufacturing as well. By the year 2050, the demand for fresh water will be one-third greater than it is now.

Drinking water comes from groundwater and surface water. Groundwater primarily comes from precipitation that seeps down into the ground through cracks, crevices, and porous spaces down to the aquifer; an underground storage area of water. The aquifer is our least visible or thought-of resource. Nearly forty percent of Americans rely on groundwater for drinking. For some communities in rural areas, it is their only source for fresh water, but this groundwater can become contaminated by pesticides, fertilizers, and waste from landfills, septic tanks, and farmlands. Once an aquifer is polluted, it may be almost impossible to get the contaminants out, making the aquifer unusable for decades to come, or sometimes never useable again.

Surface water covers about seventy percent of the earth’s surface. Surface water from freshwater sources accounts for more than sixty percent of the water used in American homes, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, almost half of that water is unfit for swimming, fishing, or drinking. Nutrient pollution, such as nitrates and phosphates are the leading types of contamination for surface waters. Ocean water is contaminated by chemicals, nutrients, and heavy metals that are carried from farms, factories, and cities by the way of storm drains and sewers spilling out into our bays and estuaries, and then out to sea, carrying with it trash and plastic.

On the opposite side of the water spectrum, we have wastewater, which is comprised of sewage, some industrial waste, and gray water. Gray water comes from our sinks, showers, washing machines, and dishwashers; sewage comes from our toilets. More than eighty percent of the world’s wastewater flows back into the environment without being treated or reused.

In the United States wastewater treatment plants process about thirty-four billion gallons of wastewater per day. Wastewater treatment plants reduce pollutants such as pathogens, phosphorus, and nitrogen that’s in sewage and discharge the treated water back into the environment. Some is used to spray fields while some is discharged into a stream or river, and some is injected back into the aquifer. When systems fail due to aging and easily overwhelmed sewer systems, raw sewage – some eight hundred and fifty billion gallons a year – is released into the environment.

The truth of the matter is – water pollution kills. In fact, almost one and a half million people die each year, and one billion people are sickened by unsafe water. Diseases like cholera, giardia, and typhoid are spread by contaminated water. Even a water system that is safe can become contaminated by backflow of pollutants into the system.

What can we do to help prevent water pollution? We can reduce our plastic consumption and reuse or recycle when we can. We can dispose of chemicals, oils, and non-biodegradable items properly. We can avoid applying pesticides or herbicides to our lawns and not flush our old medications down the toilet but dispose of them properly.  Those are just a few ways to help prevent water pollution.

Implementation of new regulations could alleviate today’s challenges to chemicals such as microplastics, PFAS, and pharmaceuticals that wastewater treatment plants were not built to handle.

Our waterways serve every one of us. We all have the power to help protect our most natural resource by properly disposing of chemicals and being mindful of the products we use.

This article was funded under RCAP’s EPA NPA 1 2022 – 2024 grant. 

By David Bullington, Technical Assistance Provider, SERCAP

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