Pollutants That Cause Agricultural Nonpoint Source Pollution

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Pollutants That Cause Agricultural Nonpoint Source Pollution

The primary agricultural nonpoint source pollutants are nutrients, sediment, animal wastes, salts, and pesticides. Agricultural activities also have the potential to directly impact the habitat of aquatic species through physical disturbances caused by livestock or equipment, or through the management of water. The general pathways for transport of pollutants from agricultural lands to water resources are shown in Figure 2-1 (USDA, 1991). The effects of these pollutants on water quality are discussed below.

1. Nutrients

Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) are the two major nutrients from agricultural land that degrade water quality. Nutrients are applied to agricultural land in several different forms and come from various sources, including;

* Commercial fertilizer in a dry or fluid form, containing nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), secondary nutrients, and micronutrients;
* Manure from animal production facilities including bedding and other wastes added to the manure, containing N,P,K, secondary nutrients, micronutrients, salts, some metals, and organics;
* Municipal and industrial treatment plant sludge, containing N,P,K, secondary nutrients, micronutrients, salts, metals, and organic solids;
* Municipal and industrial treatment plant effluent, containing N,P,K, secondary nutrients, micronutrients, salts, metals, and organics;
* Legumes and crop residues containing N, P, K, secondary nutrients, and micronutrients;
* Irrigation water; and
* Atmospheric deposition of nutrients such as nitrogen and sulphur.

Surface water runoff from agricultural lands to which nutrients have been applied may transport the following pollutants:

* Particulate-bound nutrients, chemicals, and metals, such as phosphorus, organic nitrogen, and metals applied with some organic wastes;
* Soluble nutrients and chemicals, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, metals, and many other major and minor nutrients;
* Sediment, particulate organic solids, and oxygen-demanding material;
* Salts; and
* Bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms.

Ground-water infiltration from agricultural lands to which nutrients have been applied may transport the following pollutants: soluble nutrients and chemicals, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, metals, and many other major and minor nutrients, and salts.

Surface water and ground-water pollutants from organic matter and crop residue decomposition and from legumes growing on agricultural land may include nitrogen, phosphorus, and other essential nutrients found in the residue of growing crops.

All plants require nutrients for growth. In aquatic environments, nutrient availability usually limits plant growth. Nitrogen and phosphorus generally are present at background or natural levels below 0.3 and 0.05 mg/L, respectively. When these nutrients are introduced into a stream, lake, or estuary at higher rates, aquatic plant productivity may increase dramatically. This process, referred to as cultural eutrophication, may adversely affect the suitability of the water for other uses.

Increased aquatic plant productivity results in the addition to the system of more organic material, which eventually dies and decays. The decaying organic matter produces unpleasant odors and depletes the oxygen supply required by aquatic organisms. Excess plant growth may also interfere with recreational activities such as swimming and boating. Depleted oxygen levels, especially in colder bottom waters where dead organic matter tends to accumulate, can reduce the quality of fish habitat and encourage the propagation of fish that are adapted to less oxygen or to warmer surface waters. Highly enriched waters will stimulate algae production, with consequent increased turbidity and color. Algae growth is also believed to be harmful to coral reefs (e.g., Florida coast). Furthermore, the increased turbidity results in less sunlight penetration and availability to submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). Since SAV provides habitat for small or juvenile fish, the loss of SAV has severe consequences for the food chain. Chesapeake Bay is an example in which nutrients are believed to have contributed to SAV loss.

a. Nitrogen

All forms of transported nitrogen are potential contributors to eutrophication in lakes, estuaries, and some coastal waters. In general, though not in all cases, nitrogen availability is the limiting factor for plant growth in marine ecosystems. Thus, the addition of nitrogen can have a significant effect on the natural functioning of marine ecosystems.

In addition to eutrophication, excessive nitrogen causes other water quality problems. Dissolved ammonia at concentrations above 0.2 mg/L may be toxic to fish, especially trout. Nitrates in drinking water are potentially dangerous, especially to newborn infants. Nitrate is converted to nitrite in the digestive tract, which reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood (methemoglobinemia), resulting in brain damage or even death. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a limit of 10 mg/L nitrate-nitrogen in water used for human consumption (USEPA, 1989).

Nitrogen is naturally present in soils but must be added to increase crop production. Nitrogen is added to the soil primarily by applying commercial fertilizers and manure, but also by growing legumes (biological nitrogen fixation) and incorporating crop residues. Not all nitrogen that is present in or on the soil is available for plant use at any one time. For example, in the eastern Corn Belt, it is normally assumed that about 50 percent of applied N is assimilated by crops during the year of application (Nelson, 1985). Organic nitrogen normally constitutes the majority of the soil nitrogen. It is slowly converted (2 to 3 percent per year) to the more readily plant-available inorganic ammonium or nitrate.

The chemical form of nitrogen affects its impact on water quality. The most biologically important inorganic forms of nitrogen are ammonium (NH4-N), nitrate (NO3-N), and nitrite (NO2-N). Organic nitrogen occurs as particulate matter, in living organisms, and as detritus. It occurs in dissolved form in compounds such as amino acids, amines, purines, and urea.

Nitrate-nitrogen is highly mobile and can move readily below the crop root zone, especially in sandy soils. It can also be transported with surface runoff, but not usually in large quantities. Ammonium, on the other hand, becomes adsorbed to the soil and is lost primarily with eroding sediment. Even if nitrogen is not in a readily available form as it leaves the field, it can be converted to an available form either during transport or after delivery to waterbodies.

b. Phosphorus

Phosphorus can also contribute to the eutrophication of both freshwater and estuarine systems. While phosphorus typically plays the controlling role in freshwater systems, in some estuarine systems both nitrogen and phosphorus can limit plant growth. Algae consume dissolved inorganic phosphorus and convert it to the organic form. Phosphorus is rarely found in concentrations high enough to be toxic to higher organisms.

Although the phosphorus content of most soils in their natural condition is low, between 0.01 and 0.2 percent by weight, recent soil test results show that the phosphorus content of most cropped soils in the Northeast have climbed to the high or very high range (Sims, 1992). Manure and fertilizers increase the level of available phosphorus in the soil to promote plant growth, but many soils now contain higher phosphorus levels than plants need (Killorn, 1980; Novais and Kamprath, 1978). Phosphorus can be found in the soil in dissolved, colloidal, or particulate forms.

Runoff and erosion can carry some of the applied phosphorus to nearby water bodies. Dissolved inorganic phosphorus (orthophosphate phosphorus) is probably the only form directly available to algae. Particulate and organic phosphorus delivered to waterbodies may later be released and made available to algae when the bottom sediment of a stream becomes anaerobic, causing water quality problems.

2. Sediment

Sediment affects the use of water in many ways. Suspended solids reduce the amount of sunlight available to aquatic plants, cover fish spawning areas and food supplies, smother coral reefs, clog the filtering capacity of filter feeders, and clog and harm the gills of fish. Turbidity interferes with the feeding habits of fish. These effects combine to reduce fish, shellfish, coral, and plant populations and decrease the overall productivity of lakes, streams, estuaries, and coastal waters. In addition, recreation is limited because of the decreased fish population and the water’s unappealing, turbid appearance. Turbidity also reduces visibility, making swimming less safe.

Chemicals such as some pesticides, phosphorus, and ammonium are transported with sediment in an adsorbed state. Changes in the aquatic environment, such as a lower concentration in the overlying waters or the development of anaerobic conditions in the bottom sediments, can cause these chemicals to be released from the sediment. Adsorbed phosphorus transported by the sediment may not be immediately available for aquatic plant growth but does serve as a long-term contributor to eutrophication.

Sediment is the result of erosion. It is the solid material, both mineral and organic, that is in suspension, is being transported, or has been moved from its site of origin by air, water, gravity, or ice. The types of erosion associated with agriculture that produce sediment are (1) sheet and rill erosion and (2) gully erosion. Soil erosion can be characterized as the transport of particles that are detached by rainfall, flowing water, or wind (Figure 2-2). Eroded soil is either redeposited on the same field or transported from the field in runoff.

Sediments from different sources vary in the kinds and amounts of pollutants that are adsorbed to the particles. For example, sheet and rill erosion mainly move soil particles from the surface or plow layer of the soil. Sediment that originates from surface soil has a higher pollution potential than that from subsurface soils. The topsoil of a field is usually richer in nutrients and other chemicals because of past fertilizer and pesticide applications, as well as nutrient cycling and biological activity. Topsoil is also more likely to have a greater percentage of organic matter. Sediment from gullies and streambanks usually carries less adsorbed pollutants than sediment from surface soils.

Soil eroded and delivered from cropland as sediment usually contains a higher percentage of finer and less dense particles than the parent soil on the cropland. This change in composition of eroded soil is due to the selective nature of the erosion process. For example, larger particles are more readily detached from the soil surface because they are less cohesive, but they also settle out of suspension more quickly because of their size. Organic matter is not easily detached because of its cohesive properties, but once detached it is easily transported because of its low density. Clay particles and organic residues will remain suspended for longer periods and at slower flow velocities than will larger or more dense particles. This selective erosion can increase overall pollutant delivery per ton of sediment delivered because small particles have a much greater adsorption capacity than larger particles. As a result, eroding sediments generally contain higher concentrations of phosphorus, nitrogen, and pesticides than the parent soil (i.e., they are enriched).

3. Animal Wastes

Animal waste (manure) includes the fecal and urinary wastes of livestock and poultry; process water (such as from a milking parlor); and the feed, bedding, litter, and soil with which they become intermixed. The following pollutants may be contained in manure and associated bedding materials and could be transported by runoff water and process wastewater from confined animal facilities:

* Oxygen-demanding substances;
* Nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other major and minor nutrients or other deleterious materials;
* Organic solids;
* Salts;
* Bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms; and
* Sediments.

Fish kills may result from runoff, wastewater, or manure entering surface waters, due to ammonia or dissolved oxygen depletion. The decomposition of organic materials can deplete dissolved oxygen supplies in water, resulting in anoxic or anaerobic conditions. Methane, amines, and sulfide are produced in anaerobic waters, causing the water to acquire an unpleasant odor, taste, and appearance. Such waters can be unsuitable for drinking, fishing, and other recreational uses.

Solids deposited in waterbodies can accelerate eutrophication through the release of nutrients over extended periods of time. Because of the high nutrient and salt content of manure and runoff from manure-covered areas, contamination of ground water can be a problem if storage structures are not built to minimize seepage.

Animal diseases can be transmitted to humans through contact with animal feces. Runoff from fields receiving manure will contain extremely high numbers of bacteria if the manure has not been incorporated or the bacteria have not been subject to stress. Shellfish closure and beach closure can result from high fecal coliform counts. Although not the only source of pathogens, animal waste has been responsible for shellfish contamination in some coastal waters.

The method, timing, and rate of manure application are significant factors in determining the likelihood that water quality contamination will result. Manure is generally more likely to be transported in runoff when applied to the soil surface than when incorporated into the soil. Spreading manure on frozen ground or snow can result in high concentrations of nutrients being transported from the field during rainfall or snowmelt, especially when the snowmelt or rainfall events occur soon after spreading (Robillard and Walter, 1986). The water quality problems associated with nitrogen and phosphorus are discussed under Section F.1.

When application rates of manure for crop production are based on N, the P and K rates normally exceed plant requirements (Westerman et al., 1985). The soil generally has the capacity to adsorb phosphorus leached from manure applied on land. As previously mentioned, however, nitrates are easily leached through soil into ground water or to return flows, and phosphorus can be transported by eroded soil.

Conditions that cause a rapid die-off of bacteria are low soil moisture, low pH, high temperatures, and direct solar radiation. Manure storage generally promotes die-off, although pathogens can remain dormant at certain temperatures. Composting the wastes can be quite effective in decreasing the number of pathogens.

4. Salts

Salts are a product of the natural weathering process of soil and geologic material. They are present in varying degrees in all soils and in fresh water, coastal waters, estuarine waters, and ground waters.

In soils that have poor subsurface drainage, high salt concentrations are created within the root zone where most water extraction occurs. The accumulation of soluble and exchangeable sodium leads to soil dispersion, structure breakdown, decreased infiltration, and possible toxicity; thus, salts often become a serious problem on irrigated land, both for continued agricultural production and for water quality considerations. High salt concentrations in streams can harm freshwater aquatic plants just as excess soil salinity damages agricultural crops. While salts are generally a more significant pollutant for freshwater ecosystems than for saline ecosystems, they may also adversely affect anadromous fish. Although they live in coastal and estuarine waters most of their lives, anadromous fish depend on freshwater systems near the coast for crucial portions of their life cycles.

The movement and deposition of salts depend on the amount and distribution of rainfall and irrigation, the soil and underlying strata, evapotranspiration rates, and other environmental factors. In humid areas, dissolved mineral salts have been naturally leached from the soil and substrata by rainfall. In arid and semi-arid regions, salts have not been removed by natural leaching and are concentrated in the soil. Soluble salts in saline and sodic soils consist of calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, carbonate, bicarbonate, sulfate, and chloride ions. They are fairly easily leached from the soil. Sparingly soluble gypsum and lime also occur in amounts ranging from traces to more than 50 percent of the soil mass.

Irrigation water, whether from ground or surface water sources, has a natural base load of dissolved mineral salts. As the water is consumed by plants or lost to the atmosphere by evaporation, the salts remain and become concentrated in the soil. This is referred to as the “concentrating effect.”

The total salt load carried by irrigation return flow is the sum of the salt remaining in the applied water plus any salt picked up from the irrigated land. Irrigation return flows provide the means for conveying the salts to the receiving streams or ground-water reservoirs. If the amount of salt in the return flow is low in comparison to the total stream flow, water quality may not be degraded to the extent that use is impaired. However, if the process of water diversion for irrigation and the return of saline drainage water is repeated many times along a stream or river, water quality will be progressively degraded for downstream irrigation use as well as for other uses.

5. Pesticides

The term pesticide includes any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest or intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant. The principal pesticidal pollutants that may be detected in surface water and in ground water are the active and inert ingredients and any persistent degradation products. Pesticides and their degradation products may enter ground and surface water in solution, in emulsion, or bound to soil colloids. For simplicity, the term pesticides will be used to represent “pesticides and their degradation products” in the following sections.

Despite the documented benefits of using pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, miticides, nematicides, etc.) to control plant pests and enhance production, these chemicals may, in some instances, cause impairments to the uses of surface water and ground water. Some types of pesticides are resistant to degradation and may persist and accumulate in aquatic ecosystems.

Pesticides may harm the environment by eliminating or reducing populations of desirable organisms, including endangered species. Sublethal effects include the behavioral and structural changes of an organism that jeopardize its survival. For example, certain pesticides have been found to inhibit bone development in young fish or to affect reproduction by inducing abortion.

Herbicides in the aquatic environment can destroy the food source for higher organisms, which may then starve. Herbicides can also reduce the amount of vegetation available for protective cover and the laying of eggs by aquatic species. Also, the decay of plant matter exposed to herbicide-containing water can cause reductions in dissolved oxygen concentration (North Carolina State University, 1984).

Sometimes a pesticide is not toxic by itself but is lethal in the presence of other pesticides. This is referred to as a synergistic effect, and it may be difficult to predict or evaluate. Bioconcentration is a phenomenon that occurs if an organism ingests more of a pesticide than it excretes. During its lifetime, the organism will accumulate a higher concentration of that pesticide than is present in the surrounding environment. When the organism is eaten by another animal higher in the food chain, the pesticide will then be passed to that animal, and on up the food chain to even higher level animals.

A major source of contamination from pesticide use is the result of normal application of pesticides. Other sources of pesticide contamination are atmospheric deposition, spray drift during the application process, misuse, and spills, leaks, and discharges that may be associated with pesticide storage, handling, and waste disposal.

The primary routes of pesticide transport to aquatic systems are (Maas et al., 1984):

1. Direct application;
2. In runoff;
3. Aerial drift;
4. Volatilization and subsequent atmospheric deposition; and
5. Uptake by biota and subsequent movement in the food web.

The amount of field-applied pesticide that leaves a field in the runoff and enters a stream primarily depends on:

1. The intensity and duration of rainfall or irrigation;
2. The length of time between pesticide application and rainfall occurrence;
3. The amount of pesticide applied and its soil/water partition coefficient;
4. The length and degree of slope and soil composition;
5. The extent of exposure to bare (vs. residue or crop-covered) soil;
6. Proximity to streams;
7. The method of application; and
8. The extent to which runoff and erosion are controlled with agronomic and structural practices.

Pesticide losses are generally greatest when rainfall is intense and occurs shortly after pesticide application, a condition for which water runoff and erosion losses are also greatest.

The rate of pesticide movement through the soil profile to ground water is inversely proportional to the pesticide adsorption partition coefficient or Kd (a measure of the degree to which a pesticide is partitioned between the soil and water phase). The larger the Kd, the slower the movement and the greater the quantity of water required to leach the pesticide to a given depth.

Pesticides can be transported to receiving waters either in dissolved form or attached to sediment. Dissolved pesticides may be leached to ground-water supplies. Both the degradation and adsorption characteristics of pesticides are highly variable.

6. Habitat Impacts

The functioning condition of riparian-wetland areas is a result of interaction among geology, soil, water, and vegetation. Riparian-wetland areas are functioning properly when adequate vegetation is present to (1) dissipate stream energy associated with high water flows, thereby reducing erosion and improving water quality; (2) filter sediment and aid floodplain development; (3) support denitrification of nitrate-contaminated ground water as it is discharged into streams; (4) improve floodwater retention and ground-water recharge; (5) develop root masses that stabilize banks against cutting action; (6) develop diverse ponding and channel characteristics to provide the habitat and the water depth, duration, and temperature necessary for fish production, waterfowl breeding, and other uses; and (7) support greater biodiversity.

Improper livestock grazing affects all four components of the water-riparian system: banks/shores, water column, channel, and aquatic and bordering vegetation (Platts, 1990). The potential effects of grazing include:


* Shear or sloughing of streambank soils by hoof or head action.
* Water, ice, and wind erosion of exposed streambank and channel soils because of loss of vegetative cover.
* Elimination or loss of streambank vegetation.
* Reduction of the quality and quantity of streambank undercuts.
* Increasing streambank angle (laying back of streambanks), which increases water width, decreases stream depth, and alters or eliminates fish habitat.

Water Column

* Withdrawal from streams to irrigate grazing lands.
* Drainage of wet meadows or lowering of the ground-water table to facilitate grazing access.
* Pollutants (e.g., sediments) in return water from grazed lands, which are detrimental to the designated uses such as fisheries.
* Changes in magnitude and timing of organic and inorganic energy (i.e., solar radiation, debris, nutrients) inputs to the stream.
* Increase in fecal contamination.
* Changes in stream morphology, such as increases in stream width and decreases in stream depth, including reduction of stream shore water depth.
* Changes in timing and magnitude of stream flow events from changes in watershed vegetative cover.
* Increase in stream temperature.


* Changes in channel morphology.
* Altered sediment transport processes.

Riparian Vegetation

* Changes in plant species composition (e.g., shrubs to grass to forbs).
* Reduction of floodplain and streambank vegetation including vegetation hanging over or entering into the water column.
* Decrease in plant vigor.
* Changes in timing and amounts of organic energy leaving the riparian zone.
* Elimination of riparian plant communities (i.e., lowering of the water table allowing xeric plants to replace riparian plants).