Report: Nitrogen and Phosphorous Pollution Remains Serious Threat

September 29, 2010

Several decades of work haven't made a dent in reducing nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in the vast majority of US streams and aquifers in urban and agricultural areas, according to a US Geological Survey report released Sept. 23, 2010. That has left these waterways with concentrations of each pollutant that are 2 to 10 times higher than the EPA standard for protecting aquatic life.

USGS says this report is the most comprehensive national assessment of this issue ever conducted. The agency used data from thousands of locations to analyze trends from 1992 to 2004.

Nitrogen and phosphorous are major, well-known pollutants that contribute to many types of environmental and human health problems, including coastal dead zones, hazardous algal toxins, and unhealthful drinking water. The agency predicts that drinking water contamination in public water supplies fed by wells is likely to increase for at least the next decade.

Nitrogen and phosphorous come from sources such as wastewater, industrial discharges, agricultural use of fertilizer and manure, concentrated animal feeding operations, urban runoff, septic systems, and atmospheric deposition from sources such as coal-fired power plants. The mix of contributors for any individual area varies widely across the country.

You can probably find many local and regional stories on nitrogen and phosphorus water pollution. The study included samples from many watersheds that cover much of the country. Downloadable data on specific locations is available, as are predictions for areas that haven't been tested. Regions that are most threatened for various problems (e.g., well water contamination, downstream influx, the relative role of wastewater treatment plants) are highlighted.

The authors say their new information can be a useful tool for understanding the details of this ongoing, serious problem and for developing local and national strategies to effectively reduce the threat.