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Chapter 17: Water Pollution and its Prevention

17.1 Water Pollution

I. The EPA defines pollution as “the presence of a substance in the environment
that, because of its chemical composition or quantity, prevents the
functioning of natural processes and produces undesirable environmental
and health effects.
A. Any material that causes pollution is called a pollutant.
Pollution Essentials
I. Pollutants are almost by-products of otherwise essential activities and
biological functions. Pollution problems become more pressing over the
years because both growing populations and expanding per capita use of
materials and energy have increased the amounts of by-products that go
into the environment.
A. Many materials now widely used are nonbiodegradable. They resist
breakdown by detritus feeders and decomposers and consequently
accumulate in the environment.
B. The general strategy for fighting pollution must be:
1. Identify the material or materials that are causing the pollution
2. Identify the sources of the pollutants
3. Clean up the environment already impacted by pollution
4. Develop and implement pollution-control strategies to prevent the
pollutants from entering the environment
5. Develop and implement alternative means of meeting the need that
do not produce the polluting by-product
Water Pollution: Sources, Types, Criteria
I. For purposes of regulation, it is customary to distinguish between point
sources and nonpoint sources of pollutants.
A. Point sources involve the discharge of substances from factories,
sewage systems, power plants, coal mines, and oil wells. These
sources are relatively easy to identify and therefore are easier to
monitor and regulate than nonpoint sources, which are poorly defined
and scattered over broad areas.
B. Some of the most prominent nonpoint sources of pollution are
agricultural runoff, storm-water drainage, and atmospheric deposition.
C. Two basic strategies are employed in attempting to bring water
pollution under control: 1) reduce or remove the sources and 2) treat
the water before it is released so as to remove pollutants or convert
them to harmless forms. Water treatment is the best option for point
sources. Source reduction can be employed for both kinds of sources
and is the best option for nonpoint sources.
II. The most serious water pollutants are the infectious agents that cause
sickness and death.
A. The excrement from humans and other animals infected with certain
pathogens contains large numbers of these organisms or their eggs.
Even after symptoms of disease disappear, an infected person or
animal may still harbor low populations of the pathogen, thus
continuing to act as a carrier of disease.
B. If wastes from carriers contaminate drinking water, food, or water used
for swimming or bathing, the pathogens can gain access to, and infect,
other individuals. Today, public-health measures that prevent this
disease cycle have been adopted throughout the developed world. The
following measures were important in controlling waterbourne
1. Purification and disinfection of public water supplies with chlorine
or other agents
2. Sanitary collection and treatment of human and animal wastes
3. Maintenance of sanitary standards in all facilities in which food is
processed or prepared for public consumption
4. Instruction in personal and domestic hygiene practices
III. Good health is primarily a result of the prevention of disease through public-
health measures.
A. Largely because of poor sanitation regarding water and sewage, a
significant portion of the world’s population is chronically infected with
various pathogens. Moreover, populations in areas where there is little
or no sewage treatment are extremely vulnerable to deadly epidemics
of many diseases spread by way of sewage.
IV. Along with pathogens, human and animal wastes contain organic matter that
creates serious problems if it enters bodies of water untreated. Other
kinds of organic matter can enter bodies of water as a result of runoff and
can grow within the water.
A. When bacteria and detritus feeders decompose organic matter in
water, they consume oxygen gas dissolved in the water. Even a
moderate amount of organic matter decomposing in water can deplete
the water of its DO.
B. Bacteria keep the water depleted in DO as long as there is dead
organic matter to support their growth and oxygen replenishment is
C. Biochemical oxygen demand is a measure of the amount of organic
material in water, in terms of how much oxygen will be required to
break it down biologically, chemically, or both. The higher the BOD
measure, the greater the likelihood that dissolved oxygen will be
depleted in the course of breaking it down.
D. A high BOD causes so much oxygen depletion that animal life is
severely limited or precluded.
E. If the system goes anaerobic, only bacteria can survive, using their
abilities to switch to fermentation or anaerobic respiration.
V. Because water is such an excellent solvent, it is able to hold many chemical
substances in solution that have undesirable effects. Water-soluble
inorganic chemicals constitute an important class of pollutants that
include heavy metals, acids from main drainage, and acid precipitation.
A. The organic chemicals are another group of substances found in
polluted waters. These include petroleum, pesticides, industrial
chemicals, and cleaning solvents.
B. Many of these pollutants are toxic even at low concentrations. Some
may become concentrated by passing up the food chain in a process
called biomagnifications.
C. At higher concentrations, they can change the properties of bodies of
water so as to prevent them from serving any useful purpose except
VI. As landforms weather, a certain amount of sediment enters streams and
rivers. However, erosion from farmlands, deforested slopes, overgrazed
rangelands, construction sites, mining sites, etc. greatly increase the load
of sediment entering waterways.
A. Sediments have direct and extreme physical impacts on streams and
B. When erosion is slight, streams and rivers of the watershed run clear
and support algae and other aquatic plants. These producers support a
complex food web of bacteria, protozoa, worms, and other organisms.
C. Sediment entering waterways in large amounts has an array of
impacts. Sand, silt, clay, and organic particles are quickly separated by
the agitation of flowing water and are carried at different rates. Clay
and humus are carried in suspension, making the water muddy and
reducing the amount of light penetrating the water and reducing
photosynthesis. It also kills animals by clogging their gills.
D. Especially destructive is the bed load of sand and silt, which is not
readily carried in suspension, but is gradually washed along the
bottom. These particles bury the bottom life and fill in the hiding
places of fish and crayfish. Aquatic plants and other organisms are
prevented from reestablishing themselves because the bottom is a
constantly shifting bed of sand.
E. Modern storm-water management is designed to reduce the bed load,
usually via storm drains that are periodically emptied of their
VII.Some of the inorganic chemicals carried in solution in all bodies of water are
classified as nutrients—essential elements required by plants. The two
most important nutrients for aquatic plant growth are phosphorous and
nitrogen, and they are often in such low supply in water that they are the
limiting factors for aquatic plants.
A. More nutrients mean more plant growth, so nutrients become water
pollutants when they are added from point or nonpoint sources and
stimulate undesirable plant growth in bodies of water.
B. The most obvious point sources of excessive nutrients are sewage
outfalls. Agricultural runoff is the most notorious nonpoint source of
VIII. Many water pollutants are found in water only because of human
activities. Others are always found in natural waters, and they are a
problem only under certain conditions. In both cases, the concentration of
the pollutant must be of primary concern.
A. To provide standards for assessing water pollution, the EPA has
established the National Recommended Water Quality Criteria. The
EPA has listed 167 chemicals and substances as criteria pollutants. The
majority of these are toxic chemicals, but many are also natural
chemicals or conditions that describe the state of water. The list
identifies the pollutant and then recommends concentrations for fresh
water, salt water, and human consumption. Values are given for the
critical maximum concentration, the highest single concentration
beyond which environmental impacts may be expected, and criterion
continuous concentration, the highest sustained concentration beyond
which undesirable impacts may be expected.
B. For drinking water, the EPA has established the Drinking Water
Standards and Health Advisories, a set of tables that are updated
periodically. These standards are enforceable under the authority of
the Safe Drinking Water Act. They are presented as maximum
contaminant levels.
C. Two important applications of water quality criteria are the National
Pollution Discharge Elimination System and Total Maximum Daily Load
programs. The NPDES program addresses point-source pollution and
issues permits that regulate discharges from wastewater treatment
plants and industrial sources. The TMDL program evaluates all sources
of pollutants entering a body of water, especially nonpoint sources,
according to the water body’s ability to assimilate the pollutant.

17.2 Wastewater Management and Treatment

Development of Wastewater Collection and Treatment Systems
I. To alleviate the problem of sewage-polluted waterways, facilities were
designed and constructed to treat the outflow before it entered the
receiving waterway.
A. Gradually, regulations were passed requiring municipalities to install
separate systems—storm drains for collecting and draining runoff from
precipitation and sanitary sewers to receive all wastewater.
II. Much of the developing world still exists in the most primitive stage of
sewage treatment.
The Pollutants in Raw Wastewater
I. The total mixture of water collected from all drains is called raw sewage. It
mostly consists of water.
A. The pollutants in raw sewage are usually divided into four categories
which correspond to the techniques used to remove them:
1. Debris and grit: bags, course sand, gravel, other objects
2. Particulate organic material: fecal matter, food wastes, toilet paper
3. Colloidal and dissolved organic material: very fine particles of
particulate organic material, bacteria, urine, soap, detergent
4. Dissolved inorganic material: nitrogen, phosphorous, nutrients
Removing Pollutants from Wastewater
I. Removing debris and grit is called preliminary treatment. Usually, preliminary
treatment involves two steps: the screening out of debris and the settling
of grit.
A. Debris is removed by letting raw sewage flow through a bar screen.
After passing through the screen, the water flows through a grit
chamber in which its velocity is slowed just enough to permit the grit
to settle.
II. After preliminary treatment, the water moves onto primary treatment, where
it flows very slowly through large tanks called primary clarifiers. Because
its flow is slow, the water is nearly motionless for several hours. The
particulate organic material settles to the bottom, where it can be
A. At the same time, fatty or oily material floats to the top, where it is
skimmed from the surface.
B. All the material that is removed is combined into raw sludge, which is
treated separately.
III. Secondary treatment uses natural decomposers and detritus feeders. An
environment is created that enables these organisms to feed on the
colloidal and dissolved organic material and break it down to carbon
dioxide, mineral nutrients, and water.
A. The wastewater from primary treatment is a food- and water-rich
medium for the decomposers and detritus feeders. The only thing
that needs to be added to the water is oxygen to enhance the
organisms’ respiration and growth.
B. Either of two systems may be used to add oxygen to the water: a
trickling-filter system or an activated-sludge system. In a trickling-
filter system, the water exiting from primary treatment is sprinkled
onto, and allowed to percolate through, a bed of fist-sized rocks.
The spaces between the rocks provide good aeration. The organic
material in the water is absorbed and digested by decomposers and
detritus feeders as it trickles by.
C. The activated-sludge system is the most common secondary-
treatment system. Water from primary treatment enters a large
tank that is equipped with an air-bubbling system or rapidly
churning system of paddles. A mixture of detritus-feeding
organisms, activated sludge, is added to the water as it enters the
tank, and the water is vigorously aerated as it moves through the
tank. Organisms in this well-aerated environment reduce the
biomass of organic material as they feed.
D. As the organisms feed on each other, they tend to form into
clumps, called floc, that settle readily when the water is stilled.
Thus, from the aeration tank, the water is passed into a secondary
clarifier tank where the organisms settle out and the water moves
on. The settled organisms are then pumped back into the aeration
tank. Surplus amounts of activated sludge are removed and added
to the raw sludge.
II. Today, secondary activated-sludge systems have been added and are being
modified and operated in a manner that both removes nutrients and
oxidizes detritus, in a process known as biological nutrient removal.
A. In the natural nitrogen cycle, various bacteria convert nutrient forms of
nitrogen back to nonnutritive nitrogen gas in the atmosphere through
denitrification. For the biological removal of nitrogen, then, the
activated-sludge system is partitioned into zones, and the environment
in each zone is controlled in a manner that promotes the denitrifying
B. Phosphate is removed as excess organisms are removed from the
system. These organisms, together with the phosphate they contain,
are added to, and treated with, the raw sludge, ultimately producing a
more nutrient-rich treated-sludge product. Various chemical
treatments are often used as an alternative to BNR. One such process
is to pass the effluent from standard secondary treatment through a
filter of lime, which causes the phosphate to precipitate out as
insoluble calcium phosphate. Another is to treat the effluent with ferric
chloride, which produces insoluble ferric phosphate.
III. The wastewater is subjected to a final clarification and disinfection. The most
widely used disinfectant is chlorine gas. But this treatment introduces
chlorine into natural waterways, and even minute levels of chlorine can
harm aquatic animals.
A. One alternative disinfecting agent is ozone gas, which kills
microorganisms and breaks down to oxygen gas, improving water
quality in the process. Another disinfection technique is to pass the
effluent through an array of ultraviolent lights mounted in the water.
B. After these treatment steps, the wastewater has a lower organic and
nutrient content than many bodies of water into which it is being
discharged. Thus, discharging the wastewater may actually contribute
toward improving water quality in the receiving body.
Treatment of Sludge
I. The particulate organic matter that settles out or floats to the surface of
sewage water in primary treatment forms the bulk of raw sludge, although
the sewage also contains excesses from activated sludge and BNR
A. Pathogens are certain to be present in raw sludge because it includes
material directly from toilets. However, as nutrient-rich material, it has
the capacity to be used as organic fertilizer if it is suitably treated.
B. The commonly used methods for treating sludge and converting it into
organic fertilizer are anaerobic digestion, composting, and
pasteurization. None of these methods is capable of removing toxic
substances such as heavy metals and non-biodegradable synthetic
organic compounds.
II. Anaerobic digestion is a process of allowing bacteria to feed on the detritus in
the absence of oxygen. The raw sludge is put into large airtight tanks
called sludge digesters. In the absence of oxygen, a consortium of
anaerobic bacteria breaks down the organic matter.
A. The end products of this decomposition are carbon dioxide, methane,
and water. Thus, a major by-product of anaerobic processes is biogas,
a gaseous mixture that is about 2/3 methane.
B. Because of its methane content, biogas is flammable and can be
burned for fuel.
C. After 4-6 weeks, anaerobic digestion is more or less complete, and
what remains is called treated sludge, consisting of the remaining
organic matter, which is now a relatively stable, nutrient-rich, humus-
like material suspended in water. Pathogens have been virtually
eliminated. Such treated sludge can make excellent fertilizer. Sludge
can also be dewatered, leaving a sludge cake.
III. Another process sometimes used to treat sewage is composting. Raw sludge
is mixed with wood chips to reduce the water content. It is then placed in
windrows—long, narrow piles that allow air to circulate conveniently
through the material and that can be turned with machinery.
A. Bacteria and other decomposers break down the organic material to
rich humus-like material that makes an excellent treatment for poor
IV. After the raw sludge is dewatered, the resulting sludge cake may be put
through ovens that operate like oversized laundry dryers. In the dryers,
the sludge is pasteurized.
A. The product is dry, odorless organic pellets.
Alternative Treatment Systems
I. Many homes in rural and suburban areas lie outside the reach of a municipal
system. For these homes, on-site treatment systems are required. The
most common on-site system is the septic tank and leaching field.
A. Wastewater flows into the tank, where particulate organic matter
settles to the bottom. The tank acts like a primary clarifier in a
municipal system. Water containing colloidal and dissolved organic
material, as well as dissolved nutrients, flows into the leaching field
and gradually percolates into the soil. Organic matter that settles in
the tank is digested by bacteria, but accumulations still must be
pumped out regularly.
B. Soil bacteria decompose the colloidal and dissolved organic material
that comes through the leaching field.
II. The nutrient-rich water coming from the standard secondary-treatment
process is beneficial for growing plants. It can be used for irrigation.
However, it is important to ensure that it has been properly treated.
III. In treating wastewater, it is also possible to make use of the nutrient-
absorbing capacity of wetlands in suitable areas and under suitable
climatic conditions. The project may be part of a wet-lands recovery
program, or artificial wetlands may be constructed.
A. Wetland systems can be designed for small as well as large areas and
are becoming an increasingly popular alternative for small
communities. The key to success for such systems is to ensure that
they are kept in balance and not loaded beyond their ability to handle
B. Many aquatic systems are simply not able to act like wetlands and
absorb extra nutrients without a major change in ecosystem function.
This response is called eutrophication.

17.3 Eutrophication
I. Although eutrophication can be an entirely natural process, the introduction
of pollutants into bodies of water has greatly increased the scope and
speed of eutrophication.
Different Kinds of Aquatic Plants
I. Benthic plants are aquatic plants that grow attached to, or are rooted in, the
bottom of a body of water. All common aquarium plants are sea grasses
are benthic plants.
A. Benthic plants may be categorized as submerged aquatic vegetation,
which generally grows totally under water, or emergent vegetation,
which grows with the lower parts in water but the upper parts
emerging from the water.
B. To thrive, submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) requires water that is
clear enough to allow sufficient light to penetrate to allow
photosynthesis. As water becomes more turbid, light is diminished, and
thus decreases the depth at which SAV can grow.
C. Another important feature of SAV is that it absorbs its required mineral
nutrients from the bottom sediments through its roots. SAV is not
limited by water that is low in nutrients.
II. Phytoplankton consists of numerous species of photosynthetic algae, protists,
and chlorophyll-containing bacteria that grow as microscopic single cells
or in small groups of cells. Phytoplankton live suspended in the water and
are found wherever light and nutrients are available.
A. Phytoplankton reach high densities only in nutrient-rich water because,
not being connected to the bottom, they must absorb nutrients from
the water. A low level of nutrients in the water limits the growth of
B. Considering the different requirements of phytoplankton and SAV, the
balance between them is altered when nutrient levels in the water are
changed. As long as water remains low in nutrients, populations of
phytoplankton are suppressed, the water is clear, and light may
penetrate to support the growth of SAV. As nutrient levels increase,
phytoplankton can grow more prolifically, making the water turbid.
The Impacts of Nutrient Enrichment
I. A lake in which light penetrates deeply is oligotrophic (low in nutrients). Such
a lake is fed by a watershed that holds its nutrients well. The low nutrient
levels limit the growth of phytoplankton and allow enough light to
penetrate to support the growth of SAV, which draws its nutrients from
bottom sediments.
A. In turn, the benthic plants support the rest of a diverse aquatic
ecosystem by provided food, habitats, and dissolved oxygen.
II. As the water of an oligotrophic body becomes enriched with nutrients,
numerous changes are set in motion. First, the nutrient enrichment allows
the rapid growth and multiplication of phytoplankton, increasing the
turbidity of the water. The increasing turbidity shades out the SAV that
live in the water. With the die-off of SAV, there is a loss of food, habitats,
and dissolved oxygen from their photosynthesis.
A. Phytoplankton soon reach a maximum population density, and
continuing growth and reproduction are balanced by die-off. Dead
plankton settle out, resulting in heavy deposits of detritus on the lake
or river bottom. In turn, the abundance of detritus supports an
abundance of decomposers, mainly bacteria. The growth of bacteria,
consuming oxygen, creates an additional demand for dissolved
oxygen. The result is the depletion of dissolved oxygen, creating
hypoxic conditions.
III. Eutrophication refers to the whole sequence of events, starting with nutrient
enrichment, and proceeding to the growth and die-off of phytoplankton,
the accumulation of detritus, the growth of bacteria, and the depletion of
dissolved oxygen and the suffocation of higher organisms.
IV. In lakes and ponds whose water depth is 6 feet or less, eutrophication takes a
somewhat different course. There, SAV may grow to a height of a meter or
more, reaching the surface. Thus, with nutrient enrichement, the SAV is
not shaded out, but grows abundantly, often covering the entire water
A. As the mats of vegetation die and sink to the bottom, they create a
BOD that often depletes the water of dissolved oxygen, causing the
death of aquatic organisms.
V. In nature, apart from human impacts, eutrophication is part of the process of
natural succession. Thus, natural eutrophication is a normal process.
A. The accelerated eutrophication caused by humans is called cultural
Combating Eutrophication
I. Attacking the symptoms is appropriate in certain situations in which
immediate remediation is the goal and costs are not prohibitive. Methods
of attacking the symptoms of eutrophicaton include 1) chemical
treatments, 2) aeration, 3) harvesting aquatic weeds, and 4) drawing
water down.
A. Herbicides are often applied to ponds and lakes to control the growth
of plants. To control phytoplankton growth, copper sulfate and diquat
are frequently used. However, many of these compounds are toxic to
fish and aquatic animals, sometimes at concentrations required to
keep the vegetation under control. Also, fish are often killed after
herbicide is applied because the rotting vegetation depletes the water
of dissolved oxygen.
B. The depletion of dissolved oxygen by decomposers and the
consequent suffocation of other aquatic life is the final and most
destructive stage of eutrophication. Artificial aeration of the water can
avert this stage.
1. An aeration technique currently gaining in popularity is to lay a
network of plastic tubes with microscopic pores on the bottom of
the waterway to be treated. High-pressure air pumps force
microbubbles from the pores, and the bubbles dissolve directly into
the water.
C. In shallow lakes or ponds, where the problem is bottom-rooted
vegetation reaching and sprawling over the surface, harvesting the
aquatic weeds may be an expedient way to improve the water’s
recreational potential and aesthetics. However, the vegetation usually
quickly grows back.
D. Another option for shallow-water weed control is to draw the lake down
for a period each year. This process kills most of the rooted aquatic
plants along the shore, although they grow back in time.
II. Controlling eutrophication requires long-term strategies for correcting the
problem, which ultimately means reducing the inputs and sediments. The
first step is to identify the major point and nonpoint sources of nutrients
and sediments. Then it is a matter of developing and implementing
strategies for correction.
A. In freshwater systems, phosphorus is the most common limiting factor.
In marine systems, the limiting factor is most often nitrogen.
III. In heavily populated areas, discharges from sewage-treatment plants have
been major sources of nutrients entering waterways.
A. In regions where eutrophication has been identified as a problem, a
key step toward prevention was to ban the sale of phosphate-based
laundry detergents.
IV. Reducing or eliminating pollution from nonpoint sources will involve different
strategies for different sources. All the practices that may be used to
minimize such erosion, runoff, and leaching are lumped under a single
term, best management practices.
A. Once control measures have been put in place, the polluted body of
water must be monitored to determine whether water quality
standards are being attained.

Public Policy
I. The foundation for public policy must be the laws passed by Congress.
II. The landmark legislation is the Clean Water Act of 1972, which gave the EPA
jurisdiction over, and for the first time required permits for, all point-
source discharges of pollutants.
A. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund program provides money to
build treatment plants and provide loans to local governments. It may
also be used to control nonpoint source pollution.
B. Reauthorization of the Clean Water Act is long overdue.
III. The EPA has identified nonpoint-source pollution as the nation’s number-one
water pollution problem, with the construction of new wastewater facilities
not far behind.