The dangers of land runoff

With #PlasticFreeJuly upon us, there has been a needed global focus on reducing plastic pollution and other wastes that come from the land and often end up in the sea. Now in Partnership with Plastic Oceans International, EcoWatch highlights the dangers of another terrestrial source of ecological damage: runoff.


According to United States Geological Survey, runoff occurs naturally after rain falls on a landscape. Water doesn’t just sit on the ground; some seep into soils to cool groundwater, but most flow through ecosystems as surface runoff. In this way, runoff is an important part of the natural water cycle.

Runoff becomes a problem when stormwater picks up potential pollutants as it flows over land. Stormwater pollutants can include sediment, nutrients from agriculture such as phosphorus and nitrogen, bacteria from animal and human waste, pesticides from lawn and garden chemicals, according to the USGS. , metals from roofs and roads. All of these things build up as water flows down sewers and / or to streams, lakes and eventually the sea. They also degrade water quality and can be a hazard to plants, animals and people, the USGS reported.

Satellite image of poor algal bloom in Lake Erie resulting from runoff. NOAA

As you can imagine, storms and hurricanes often result in massive water flows on land and into the sea.

Charles Rolsky, Scientific Director of Plastic Oceans International, told EcoWatch: “Runoff is the process by which excess nutrients are washed away by certain events and accumulate to dangerously high concentrations in ecosystems around the world.”

The expert in sustainability, plastic pollution and sewage treatment plants explained a key difference between runoff and conventional waste: nutrients (in healthy amounts) help the flora and / or fauna of the planet to live, so that “the waste has little or no effect level.”

Unfortunately, it’s the high concentrations of nutrients in most runoff that cause the damage, he said. The nutrient runoff can cause a host of problems in ecosystems around the world, Rolsky pointed out.

Waste, excess nutrients and other pollutants end up in sewers and waterways and harm aquatic life along the way. As with waste, there are “downstream consequences” of this runoff and wastewater that are often overlooked. Here are just a few:

  • Excess phosphorus from agricultural sources has led to algal blooms that deplete oxygen from aquatic and marine ecosystems. This causes massive mortality to aquatic and marine life and can release toxins harmful to humans. In Tampa, Florida, such a red tide is currently devastating marine life.
  • Water pollution has caused massive death of seagrass beds, starving Florida manatees.
  • Nitrogen released during the combustion of fossil fuels can create acid rain that damages the earth’s land and water.
  • Methamphetamines excreted by users pass through sewerage systems and are then released by wastewater treatment plants and can lead to dependence on trout, CNN reported.
  • Sea turtles, especially the endangered green sea turtles that live near urban coasts, often develop debilitating fibropapilloma tumors on their eyes and fins. “Studies suggest that there are links between FP and human effects on the environment, including various forms of pollution” in water, NOAA reported.
  • Animal wastes and fertilizer runoff from factory meat farms have created the largest marine dead zone ever in the Gulf of Mexico, where nothing can survive in oxygen-depleted waters.
  • Automobile pollution has contributed to the 100% mortality of endangered coho salmon in the Puget Sound Basin due to stormwater runoff along the transportation system.

All of these unfortunate events highlight how humans pollute the natural environment far beyond what is visible.

“We need to be more aware of our impact on the environment,” Rolsky said. “Seemingly small concepts like throwing plastic down the drain can have major consequences for the planet. Wastewater treatment plants, for example, are now seen as major sources of microplastic pollution, which is the direct result from humans dumping plastic waste down the drain. More attention needs to be paid to our impact on the planet, soils included. “

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