Water Pollution

Nonpoint source water pollution

Nonpoint source pollution

caption Nonpoint source pollution is difficult to control because it comes from many different sources and locations. (Source: NOAA)

Most nonpoint source water pollution occurs as a result of surface water runoff. When rain or melted snow moves over and through the ground, the water absorbs and assimilates some of the pollutants with which it comes into contact[1]. Following a heavy rainstorm, for example, water will flow across a parking lot and pick up oil left by cars driving and parking on the asphalt. When you see a rainbow-colored sheen on water flowing across the surface of a road or parking lot, you are actually looking at nonpoint source water pollution.

This runoff then runs over the edge of the parking lot, and most likely, it eventually empties into a stream. The water flows downstream into a larger stream, and then to a lake, river, or ocean. The pollutants in this runoff can be quite harmful, and their sources numerous. We usually can’t point to one discrete location of nonpoint source pollution like we can with a discharge pipe from a factory. 

caption Motor oil and other oil-based chemicals can be recognized by a characteristic rainbow-colored sheen. (Source: NOAA)
caption Nonpoint source pollution can severely affect many aspects of a community especially the commercial fishing industry. (Source: NOAA)

Nonpoint source pollution not only affects ecosystems; it can also have harmful effects on the economy. U.S. coastal and marine waters support 28.3 million jobs, generate $54 billion in goods and services through activities like shipping, boating, and tourism, and contribute $30 billion to the U.S. economy through recreational fishing alone[2]. If pollution leads to mass die-offs of fish and dirty-looking water, this area and others like it will experience deep financial losses.

Nonpoint source pollution affects the beauty and health of coastal lands and waters. If the physical and environmental well-being of these areas is diminished, people will naturally find it less appealing to visit the coast. Beaches will not provide the tranquility and leisure activities many people expect to experience. You can see how nonpoint source pollution plays an indirect, though powerful role in tourists' contributions to a coastal community's economic status. 

caption High densities of population along coastal regions can place great stress upon the environment, particularly through the effects of nonpoint source pollution. (Source: NOAA)

The population in many coastal communities is also increasing at a rapid rate, and the value of waterfront property often relies on environmental and aquatic conditions. Excess nonpoint source pollution impacts the overall quality of life, and subsequently can drive property values down. If nonpoint source pollution continues to plague the waters surrounding coastal communities, their economies and social conditions may rapidly deteriorate.

Although the concentration of some pollutants from runoff may be lower than the concentration from a point source, the total amount of a pollutant delivered from nonpoint sources may be higher because the pollutants come from many places.

With increased control over point source pollution, scientists have begun to focus on nonpoint source pollution, how it affects the quality of the environment, and, even more importantly, how it can be controlled. Nonpoint source pollution is difficult to control because it comes from multiple locations. It also varies over time in terms of the flow and the types of pollutants it contains.

Further Reading


  1. ^U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2004. What is Nonpoint Source (NPS) Pollution? Questions and Answers.
  2. ^Leeworthy, Vernon R., Preliminary Estimates from Versions 1-6: Coastal Recreation Participation, National Survey on Recreation and the Environment (NSRE), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA's National Ocean Service, Special Projects Office, 2000.


(2013). Nonpoint source water pollution. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbee847896bb431f6986e4


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