Surface Water Pollution – A Complete Overview


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When surface water becomes polluted by contaminants, it puts strains on global drinking water supplies and aquatic animals and plants that rely on surface water environments. Surface water pollution comes from four main sources: agricultural runoff, sewage/wastewater, oil pollution, and radioactive substances. 

Water is the most valuable resource in the world; without water, we would not be able to survive. However, water supplies are becoming more polluted by the day because of poor man-made choices. This means, that what we do on a day-to-day basis, can either promote healthy water supplies, or we can destroy them. 

What Is Surface Water Pollution?

Surface water is any body of water found on the Earth’s surface, including our oceans, lakes, and rivers. Water is at risk from pollution because it is a “universal solvent”. This means that water can easily dissolve substances more rapidly than any other liquid on Earth. Also, surface waters are more vulnerable to pollution than groundwater because they are exposed, therefore it is important to reduce global pollution both locally and internationally.

As surface water is found above the ground, when we refer to surface water pollution, we are talking about the type of pollution that occurs in the oceans, streams, lakes, and rivers. Because of their geographical location, surface waters easily become polluted, and some leading causes of water pollution come from contaminated rainwater runoff. 

The biggest pollutant that surface water faces is usually from fertilizers and other harmful chemicals that are used on farms, in homes, and on infrastructure such as roads. Surface water pollution can also come from sewage leaks and waste products from farms that leach into the environment. 

These pollutants are very harmful to human water supplies because fertilizers and sewage waste carry many pathogens and waterborne diseases. Surface water pollution has serious health implications when unfiltered contaminated water is consumed, therefore it is important to understand where surface water pollution comes from and how to prevent and mitigate the pollution. 

Types Of Surface Water Pollution

The types of surface water pollution come from four main sources:

  1. Agricultural 
  2. Sewage & Wastewater
  3. Oil Pollution
  4. Radioactive Substances


The agricultural industry uses around 70% of the Earth’s surface water supplies, making it the biggest consumer of freshwater resources. Being the largest consumer also makes agriculture a serious surface water polluter. 

Worldwide, agricultural activities are the leading cause of water degradation, and in the US, agricultural pollution is the main source of contamination in surface water systems. 

Unfortunately, agricultural pollution does not end there. It is also a major pollutant in estuaries and groundwater. When it rains, any fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste, that contains nutrients and pathogens can easily enter our waterways, contributing to surface water pollution. 

As groundwater supplies the majority of drinking water in the US, this is worrying and something must be done to prevent surface water pollution. 

Excess nutrients are not only an issue to drinking water supplies, but it affects water quality worldwide because of algal blooms. Algal blooms are extremely toxic to both people and the wildlife that rely on aquatic environments. 

Sewage & Wastewater

Any water that has been used is referred to as wastewater. This can be anything from your household sinks and toilets to commercial, industrial, and agricultural industries. 

Wastewater also includes stormwater runoff, which happens when rainfall transports pollutants such as oil, grease, salts, toxic chemicals, and debris from artificial structures such as roads, into surface water areas. 

According to the United Nations, around 80% of wastewater worldwide flows back into the environment before it can be treated or reused. This means any pollutants the wastewater contains will add to surface water pollution. 

Wastewater systems try to reduce the number of pollutants and contaminants, including heavy metals and toxic chemicals in industrial waste before the water reaches our waterways. While this is good news, with overwhelmed sewage treatment systems, as much as 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater is thought to reach surface water and groundwater systems every year.

Oil Pollution

When a big oil spill (such as the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded in 2010) happens, of course, it dominates the headlines, and we are easy to point our fingers at large companies for increases in surface water pollution. However, the majority of oil pollution in our surface waters comes from oil drips from the millions of vehicles we drive every day. 

It is also estimated that 1 million tons of oil come from factories, farms, and global cities, not oil tanker spills. To put it into perspective, only 10% of oil surface water pollution comes from tanker spills in the ocean, the other 90% come from both legal and illegal discharges. 

But, we cannot blame humans for all the oil pollution in surface waters. Oil is also naturally released through fractures known as seeps, located under the sea floor. 

Radioactive Substances

Radioactive waste is any pollution that contains radioactive material, which exceeds the amount of radiation that is naturally released by the environment. 

The release of radioactive substances into surface waters is a serious type of surface water pollution, as radioactive waste can persist for thousands of years, making it extremely difficult for disposal teams to remove it. 

Most radioactive waste comes from nuclear explosions, the testing of nuclear weapons, mining of uranium, nuclear power plants, and hospitals and laboratories that use radioactive material for medical use and research. 

If radioactive waste is accidentally released or improperly disposed of, it threatens global groundwater and surface water resources.

Risks Of Surface Water Pollution

Surface water pollution is not only detrimental to the health of humans, but it also affects all living creatures. When surface water resources become polluted, any source of life that depends on water to survive will begin to deteriorate, and in worse cases die. This affects the whole food chain, all the way to us humans, again resulting in poor overall health and putting strain on the medical industry. 

Efforts are in place to decontaminate and purify water, but if surface waters are heavily polluted, it becomes a challenge to restore them back to health. Unfortunately, no water treatment method can fully remove pollutants that surface water absorbs, so in some cases, we drink water supplies that are not fully clean. For example, 60% of the population in Ethiopia and Somalia lack basic water services, and therefore, they consume unsafe drinking water. 

This brings us back to poor health. When water is contaminated, people are more likely to suffer from medical conditions such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and hepatitis A.

But, surface water pollution doesn’t only affect third-world countries. Despite the US having one of the best drinking water systems in the world, many people (4-32 million) still fall sick or suffer from waterborne diseases from drinking polluted water. 

This is why it is vital that everyone does their part to take better care of surface water resources, and the planet as a whole, to live longer and healthier lives. 

Surface Water Pollution Solutions

We are responsible for making more conscious decisions to protect surface water and other waterway systems. 

Environmental monitoring is important to reduce surface water pollution. So, by now, you should understand that surface water pollution is a major issue, which is why water monitoring is so important. We can look at current, ongoing, and future issues by frequently measuring the quality of surface water resources.

The best way is to hit the issue right at the source, this means treating water before it enters waterway systems. Wastewater treatment facilities have advanced technology that can remove most surface water pollutants. Water treatment sensors such as pH sensors, conductivity sensors, and oxidation-reduction potential (ORP) sensors are vital to measure and remove pollutants and reduce surface water pollution.

But, it is not only large operations that can reduce surface water pollution. You can also reduce the amount of plastic waste reaching surface water systems both at home and in the workplace by reducing single-use plastics, buying organic fruits and vegetables not wrapped in plastic, and using natural/organic cleaning products. 

Other water pollution solutions include:

  • Using water-efficient toilets 
  • Treating sewage with septic tanks
  • Not flushing items that could block sewage systems or leach harmful contaminants
  • Managing stormwater 
  • Promoting green agriculture & wetlands
  • Using denitrification methods 
  • Ozone wastewater treatment

Summing Up Surface Water Pollution

Surface water resources are any body of water located on top of the Earth. These include the oceans, lakes, rivers, estuaries, and so on. Surface water pollution comes from agricultural runoff, sewage and wastewater, oil pollution, and radioactive substances. 

As surface water is important in providing drinking water and supporting all life on Earth, reducing the number of contaminants and pollutants that enters these environments is crucial.

If you have any questions regarding water pollution or the water monitoring equipment we have to offer, do not hesitate to reach out to our world-class team at Atlas Scientific

Industrial Water Quality Probes / Sensors

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