Photo by solarnu (Flickr).

Do you know what happens to rainwater and snowmelt when they flow across the ground and soak into the soil? As the water moves, it picks up pollutants, ultimately spreading them to lakes, streams, and groundwater reserves. The farther the water has to travel before it can soak into the ground, the dirtier it gets. Impervious paved surfaces in cities and other urban centers worsen the problem. When contaminated runoff enters the waterways, it is known as nonpoint source pollution. According to the EPA, nonpoint source pollution is the largest water quality problem in United States.


Graphic by Robson# (Flickr).

Understanding the origins of nonpoint source pollution can help you improve water quality in your community. Dirty runoff has many opportunities to contaminate your environment, but you have even more opportunities to prevent that from happening! It’s both bad news and good news that nonpoint source pollution is a human problem. (Common pollutants include fertilizers, pesticides, motor oil, animal feces, septic systems, household cleaners, and heavy metals.) We have many bad habits, but we also have the power to change our behavior. So, what steps should you take?

The good news is that you can do a lot around your own home, especially if you maintain a garden:

Outdoor Flower Gardens

Photo by likeaduck (Flickr).

Plant shrubs in the areas of your yard that are prone to erosion. The roots pull water into their bodies and grip the soil, binding it in place.

When choosing flowers and grasses for your yard, prioritize hardy plants that don’t require sprinklers or artificial pesticides and fertilizers. Find out which plants are naturally resistant to local wildlife, since voracious insect populations and deer can cause substantial damage to non-native plants.

If you mow your lawn, don’t pick up the clippings. Leave them on the lawn to absorb excess water. The nutrients in the clippings will also feed your grass, serving as a natural fertilizer.


Photo by Prateek Rungta.

Try composting instead of purchasing commercial fertilizers. Use a secure bin to recycle leftover food and yard clippings. Compost makes a great natural fertilizer that eliminates waste and doesn’t use the chemicals that can harm wildlife (and pets!), as well as dirtying the groundwater.

Use porous materials when constructing walkways in your yard. Sustainable, permeable paving materials allow water to flow through, preventing runoff pollution. A few options: crushed stone, gravel, brick, or filter fabrics under stone. Mulch any bare spots in your garden or yard to absorb water and prevent soil erosion.

Clean up after your pets or livestock animals. Animal waste causes bacteria and pathogens to enter the soil and the water runoff contaminates any open water in your area.

Check your car for any oil or antifreeze leaks that can harm wildlife and groundwater. If you have a septic system, make sure it is pumped when necessary to prevent overflow and other issues.

$12 print on Etsy.

Locate your local waterkeeper organization to find out how you can learn how to use renewable energy to reduce the use of fossil fuels that dirty the environment.

Help promote environmental awareness among your friends, relatives, and local groups. Organize a project in your community and raise funds to clean up local bodies of water. Every group that takes the time to clear litter from walking trails and streets helps to prevent nonpoint source pollution. You are empowered to be part of the solution!

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