Understanding the Sources of Water Pollution

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Understanding the Sources of Water Pollution

Engineers classify water pollution based on its origin. Ecological engineers, or ecoengineers, investigate water pollution and make recommendations about how to reduce or prevent further contamination. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses this research to mandate the actions that each state should take to make its water supply safe. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reinforces these regulations in each respective state. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) works globally to maintain water treatment practices. Across all these organizations, ecoengineers investigate waterways to help keep them safe for public use.

The Facts about Nonpoint Source Pollution

Nonpoint source (NPS) pollution is contamination that originates from sources spread out over a wide area and is not readily identifiable. Ecoengineers label most easily identifiable contaminant sources as point pollution sources, which include but are not limited to:

  • Pipes
  • Ditches
  • Channels
  • Conduits
  • Wells
  • Individual Fissures
  • Containers
  • Railway cars
  • Livestock feeding systems
  • Marine vessel discharges

With nonpoint source pollution, human actions cause toxins to enter the water supply. The toxin levels are so discreet that it takes many years for civil engineers to identify the contamination and develop suitable solutions. These difficult to find pollution sources have tainted the natural water supply slowly and increasingly for many years. Most often, the solution to these ongoing problems are social awareness campaigns. The campaign goals are to make citizens and businesses understand the damage they are causing to the water supply and the ecosystem. These damages are so severe that the government has committed resources to correct this issue.

How Ecological Engineers Reduce Water Pollution

Ecological engineers working on NPS pollution reduction initiatives use their scientific skills when investigating waterways. These sources are tricky to accurately identify, because once someone or something causes pollution, the toxins travel into the water supply in runoff. Rainfall, melting snow, and irrigation are examples as to how runoff transfers contaminants into streams and lakes. To mitigate and potentially stop this damage, ecoengineers make recommendations to government agencies about how to reduce NPS pollution. It takes many years for the pollution to adversely affect the ecosystem and just as many years to repair the damage. NPS pollution is the biggest water pollution problem in the United States. The EPA cannot quantify the exact damage caused by nonpoint source pollution, but it cites that these contaminants taint drinking water and can make water features unsafe and injure marine wildlife.

The EPA and Nonpoint Source Water Pollution

The EPA estimates that nonpoint source water pollution has inflicted damage to roughly 33,000 United States channels. NPS pollution accounts for almost 75 percent of all polluted waterways that ecoengineers have investigated. Nonpoint source pollution is also responsible for damaging large water bodies such as the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay. The EPA relates that these damages are irreparable until municipalities eradicate the contamination sources. They also note that as the population grows, these problems will multiply. The EPA continuously monitors water conditions and uses the resulting information to make recommendations to municipalities. The municipalities then tap into the government-funded 319 Grant to fund clean water initiatives.

The 319 Grant Program for States and Territories

The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1987 produced the Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program. The program recognizes that various municipalities need funding to help reduce water pollution. It provides funding for environmental projects which may include grants, technical consultations, training, teaching, technology sharing, exhibitions and environmental monitoring. In 1990, the government awarded $38 million towards these projects. The government has provided varied funding since then, dispensing almost $164 million in grants towards these efforts in 2016. Each year, every state submits a proposal to the EPA to request 319 Grant funds. If the plans are in line with EPA regulations, the agency will issue to funds to the states.

The AWWA and Nonpoint Source Pollution

Cyanotoxins – more commonly known as blue-green algae – pose a real threat to the United States water supply. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) is the largest, nonprofit water management and treatment organization in the world. At a 2015 Congressional hearing, the AWWA council chair Aurel Arndt affirmed that those responsible for water safety must take steps to ensure that this toxic algae does not receive the nutrients it needs for continued sustenance. The council chair issued these warnings in response to the August 2014 “do not drink” order issued in Toledo, OH. The city ordered over 400,000 residents to cease ingesting and using water after discovering a large, toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie.

Arndt went on to recommend that the EPA issue more funds to the state, via the 319 grant, to help resolve the issue. He noted that this algae pollution is almost always caused by abundant nitrogen and phosphorous water deposits. Additionally, he cited runoff from NPS pollution as the most likely culprit. The chair urged the EPA to rethink how it distributes Clean Water funds, and to make algae reduction a top priority. The AWWA has engineered several protocols to handle algae contamination and has published a guide to issue to water utility managers.

The DEP and Nonpoint Source Pollution

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) oversees natural resource protection in each state. Each state has its own DEP branch agency. These branches follow guidelines issued by the EPA. The EPA sets a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limit on United States waterways. This metric prescribes the pollution levels deemed acceptable by ecoengineers. The EPA sees this regulation as an impetus to action towards meeting clean water mandates. By law, each state must meet these standards annually.

In Pennsylvania, the DEP and other environmental agencies are working jointly to meet clean water legislation. The state has invested over four billion dollars toward meeting Clean Water Act stipulations, but the state has not successfully met TMDL limits. All states must meet these standards by 2025. To bring Pennsylvania waterways into compliance, the state is revamping its environmental policies. A vibrant regional agriculture industry makes it difficult for the state to reduce nitrogen pollution. The DEP is facing backlash from the agriculture industry, which relies on raw materials that emit the compound.

Nonpoint source pollution originates from runoffs which collect contaminants that eventually deposit in waterways. Ecological engineers investigate how this happens and work with government agencies to alleviate the problem. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dictates water quality regulations for the United States. Each state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enforces the EPA mandates in their own jurisdictions. Globally, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) focuses on water management best practices. Throughout these organizations, every day ecoengineers work diligently to make sure that water is safe for all.

Learn More

Civil engineers play a crucial role in engineering the structural solutions of tomorrow and plan, design, construct, and operate the infrastructure essential to our modern lives. As a student in the online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program, you can enhance your quantitative decision-making skills and learn how to justify managerial decisions with data. You will also explore the capabilities of modern management technologies and discover how to successfully leverage these tools to maximize efficiencies in your projects and on your teams.