What is Stormwater Runoff, and Why Should We Care About It?

An algae bloom in a pond.
An algae bloom in a pond. | Source

Stormwater runoff is the portion of precipitation that does not initially get absorbed into the ground after a storm event. Excess rainfall accumulates on the earth’s surface during the storm and begins to flow downhill. As it flows toward natural streams and other concentration points, it collects contaminants from the surfaces that it passes over. These contaminants eventually reach rivers, lakes, and the ocean. A portion of this water also infiltrates into the soil and contributes to the contamination of our groundwater. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, around 80,000 miles of streams and rivers in the United States are considered ‘impaired’ due to poor stormwater quality.

Where Do Stormwater Contaminants Come From?

The main source of contamination of stormwater runoff is the urban environment. Many streams suffer from increased phosphorus and nitrogen concentrations due to the fertilizers and pesticides that have been applied on our lawns, parks, and landscaped areas. Another major source of stormwater contamination is our roadways. Brake and tire dust (as well as oils and other petroleum by-products) from our vehicles accumulate on the pavement surface until a good rain comes and washes it away. Urban surfaces have also played a significant role in the increased concentrations of metals (specifically cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, nickel and zinc) that have been found in our nation’s waters. Sediments from construction sites are also considered a contaminant of stormwater runoff.

Polluted water has destroyed this habitat
Polluted water has destroyed this habitat

What are the Impacts of Poor Stormwater Quality?

Stormwater quality can have significant impacts on our nation’s food supply, health, and the environment. Contaminated stormwater can destroy entire ecosystems killing thousands of plants and animals. Even animals that don’t live in the vicinity of the polluted waters are at risk. Many contaminants can have collateral damage as they are bio-accumulated through the food chain. High concentrations of certain chemicals, such as phosphorus, can lead to an overgrowth of potentially toxic plants. Impaired waterways can also harbor diseases placing humans at risk. High concentrations of certain chemical contaminants have been shown to cause cancer. Our food supply is also at risk as many of the irrigation systems that we use to water our crops are, or have the potential to become, tainted by polluted stormwater runoff.

What You Can Do Reduce Stormwater Contamination?

  • Minimize your use of pesticides and fertilizers. Use natural or environmentally friendly chemicals instead.
  • Maintain your car and make sure your tires are properly inflated. This will help prevent unnecessary wear on vehicle parts which could lead to an increased presence of contaminants on the road. Maintained vehicles will also have fewer leaks.
  • Utilize stormwater harvesting techniques to capture the rainfall that lands on your property rather than letting it runoff. Use that water to quench the thirst of the vegetables in your garden or the flowers in your pots. This will also conserve water.
  • Whenever doing construction activities such as landscaping and grading, utilize best management practices (BMPs) such as silt fences and sediment traps to minimize the negative impacts to stormwater quality.
  • Properly dispose of trash in a landfill. Do not litter. Recycle whenever possible. Chemicals, paints, batteries, CFL bulbs, used motor oil and other potentially toxic substances should be disposed of properly. These items should be recycled and not taken to a landfill or poured down the drain.
  • Avoid washing your car in your driveway and utilize commercial car washes instead. Use biodegradable soaps when at home car washing is necessary.
  • Properly dispose of your pet’s waste. Improper disposal can lead to contamination of local streams, lakes, and rivers.

References/Resources

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). National Menu of Stormwater Best Management Practices. 2011. <http://cfpub.epa.gov/npdes/stormwater/menuofbmps/>

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Comments 5 comments

ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Knowing the different ways we can contribute to help stormwater contamination has been very helpful. Thank you for bringing this to everyone's attention! Rated useful!

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Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 5 years ago from United States

Great advice. Congrats on your nomination.


dejahoo profile image

dejahoo 5 years ago from Georgetown, TX

Good article. The loss of storm water is one of the greatest wastes that occur on a regular basis. Although you point out the reasons why the water is quite dirty, there are areas that can produce relatively clean water and can easily be harvested for conversion into potable water with minor filtration efforts.


IntimatEvolution profile image

IntimatEvolution 5 years ago from Columbia, MO USA

Is it true that the Federal gov. is trying to make business owners and property responsible for their own stormwater runoff? I recently heard that the other day, and I was wondering how they could enact such a law, and then enforce it. Do you know anything about this?


CWanamaker profile image

CWanamaker 5 years ago from Arizona Author

Yes this is true to certain degree. There are already many regulations in place that cities, counties, and states must enforce. A lot of items related to stormwater quality are taken care of the time of construction and permitting. One of the significant sources of stormwater pollution is construction sites. Most construction sites have to have Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plans (SWPPP) for their construction activities.

Some municipalities already charge a stormwater fee or tax for stormwater disposal. This is called a stormwater utility and is usually tacked on the water bill from the city. The money is used to for many things such as maintenance of storm drains, basins, etc.

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