What is Nutrient Pollution and how does it impact the Quality of our water?


Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the EPA, said that nutrient pollution is one of the “most widespread, costly and challenging” of America’s environmental problems. The most inherent issue being a tension between water quality and food production. In 2014, the EPA announced that it would be presenting $9 million to four institutions as grants to fund research into protecting water quality by managing nutrient pollution.  Point being… this is a VERY SERIOUS PROBLEM. What is Nutrient Pollution and how does it impact the Quality of our water?

So what is Nutrient Pollution? 

There are a number of nutrient sources, including urban runoff, agricultural runoff and wastewater that cause this form of pollution.  (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) NOAA classifies nutrient pollution as scenarios where there are sizeable amounts of nutrients being added to bodies of water. These nutrients, chiefly phosphorus and nitrogen most often behave in a similar manner to fertilizer, encouraging excess growth of algae. When algae levels become high, the water quality is degraded since oxygen levels are markedly reduced or even eliminated, severely harming aquatic life or killing it altogether. The levels of toxins and bacterial growth can also increase, creating a danger to human health.  

Diminish the Pollution Risk 

There are a number of things you can do as a consumer to help minimize the risk. One need not be a farmer to make a difference.  As a homeowner and perhaps a pet owner, you CAN make a difference.

Homeowners should curb their use of lawn fertilizers and use any supplements or garden food responsibly. Overuse of fertilizers allows excess nutrients to seep into the soil and groundwater supplies. The EPA says that when fertilizers are applied in the proper quantities, at the right time, using the correct methodology, there can be a significant reduction in the potential for pollution.  

Pet owners should also clean up any pet waste using bags designed for this purpose. These bags are often made from recycled material, and the waste should be disposed of in the trash and NOT left to decay in the soil.  

Pervasive Changes 

Many farmers today are becoming more educated and sensitized to the significance of assessing the “agronomic rate” in applying nutrients. This is a critical concept which refers to the rate of nutrient application, which not only maximizes the benefits of adding nutrients correctly, but also prevents potential overuse and waste that cannot be used by the crop and contributes to nutrient pollution.  

In addition to these protocols, there are other widespread practices that can be employed to prevent nutrient pollution in waterways. These include reducing tilling rates to decrease soil compaction as well as erosion, planting trees, grass, and shrubs around fields to absorb excess nutrients, planting cover crops to reduce soil erosion, recycling any excess nitrogen and keeping animals and waste from lakes, rivers, and streams. 

The USDA (US Department of Agriculture) has established many innovative best practices to address nutrient management. These measures include nutrient content and precise timing for fertilizer application to curtail waste, regular soil testing by means of global positioning technology to characterize spatial variation in fields and manure testing to account for manure fertilizer These practices not only help protect the watershed, but could allow farmers to streamline costs and make food production more efficient.  

The delicate and complex balancing between preserving good water quality while maintaining adequate food production does require careful consideration and skill. The EPA research grants should produce innovative solutions that are viable for real world application. 

About The Author, Terry Reeh, EcoWater Systems of Nebraska:

With more than 25 years experience in the residential and commercial water treatment space, Terry is a WQA (Water Quality Association) certified water specialist, LEVEL 3, as well as a WQA certified sales representative.  Terry currently sits on EcoWater Systems (a Berkshire Hathaway Company) national Peers committee, as a water treatment expert  advising other water professionals with less experience on best trade and technology practices. EcoWater Systems of Nebraska is one of the biggest water treatment and water delivery businesses in the state.  

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