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Water: Outreach & Communication

Managing Nonpoint Source Pollution from Households

Pointer No. 10

epafiles_misc_outdatediconNote: This information is provided for reference purposes only. Although the information provided here was accurate and current when first created, it is now outdated.

The well-known stories about environmental problems tend to focus on big, recognizable targets such as smoking industrial facilities, leaking toxic waste dumps, and messy oil spills. As a result, people often forget about water pollution caused by smaller nonpoint sources--especially pollution at the household level.

However, nonpoint source (NPS) pollution is the Nation's leading source of water quality degradation. Although individual homes might contribute only minor amounts of NPS pollution, the combined effect of an entire neighborhood can be serious. These include eutrophication, sedimentation, and contamination with unwanted pollutants.

To prevent and control NPS pollution, households can learn about the causes of such pollution and take the appropriate (and often money-saving) steps to limit runoff and make sure runoff stays clean.

NPS pollution is widespread because it can occur any time activities disturb the land or water. Agriculture, forestry, grazing, septic systems, recreational boating, urban runoff, construction, physical changes to stream channels, and habitat degradation are potential sources of NPS pollution. Careless or uninformed household management also contributes to NPS pollution problems.

pointr10Limit Paved Surfaces

Urban and suburban landscapes are covered by paved surfaces like sidewalks, parking lots, roads, and driveways. They prevent water from percolating down into the ground, cause runoff to accumulate, and funnel into storm drains at high speeds. When quickly flowing runoff empties into receiving waters, it can severely erode streambanks. Paved surfaces also transfer heat to runoff, thereby increasing the temperature of receiving waters. Native species of fish and other aquatic life cannot survive in these warmer waters.

To limit NPS pollution from paved surfaces households can substitute alternatives to areas traditionally covered by nonporous surfaces. Grasses and natural ground cover, for example, can be attractive and practical substitutes for asphalt driveways, walkways, and patios. Some homes effectively incorporate a system of natural grasses, trees, and mulch to limit continuous impervious surface area. Wooden decks, gravel or brick paths, and rock gardens keep the natural ground cover intact and allow rainwater to slowly seep into the ground.

Landscape With Nature

Altering the natural contours of yards during landscaping and planting with non-native plants that need fertilizer and extra water can increase the potential for higher runoff volumes, increase erosion, and introduce chemicals into the path of runoff. In contrast, xeriscape landscaping provides households with a framework that can dramatically reduce the potential for NPS pollution.

IXeriscape incorporates many environmental factors into landscape design--soil type, use of native plants, practical turf areas, proper irrigation, mulches, and appropriate maintenance schedules. By using native plants that are well-suited to a regions climate and pests, xeriscape drastically reduces the need for irrigation and chemical applications. Less irrigation results in less runoff, while less chemical application keeps runoff clean.

Proper Septic System Management

Malfunctioning or overflowing septic systems release bacteria and nutrients into the water cycle, contaminating nearby lakes, streams, and estuaries, and ground water. Septic systems must be built in the right place. Trampling ground above the system compacts soil and can cause the systems pipes to collapse. Also, septic systems should be located away from trees because tree roots can crack pipes or obstruct the flow of wastewater through drain lines. Proper septic system management is also important, and a system should be inspected and emptied every 3 to 5 years.

y maintaining water fixtures and by purchasing water-efficient showerheads, faucets, and toilets, households can limit wastewater levels, reducing the likelihood of septic system overflow. Most water conservation technologies provide long-term economic and environmental benefits.

Proper Chemical Use, Storage, and Disposal

Household cleaners, grease, oil, plastics, and some food or paper products should not be flushed down drains or washed down the street. Over time chemicals can corrode septic system pipes and might not be completely removed during the filtration process. Chemicals poured down the drain can also interfere with the chemical and biological breakdown of the wastes in the septic tank.

On household lawns and gardens, homeowners can try natural alternatives to chemical fertilizers and pesticides and apply no more than the recommended amounts. Natural predators like insects and bats, composting, and use of native plants can reduce or entirely negate the need for chemicals. Xeriscape can limit chemical applications to lawns and gardens.

If chemicals are needed around the home, they should be stored properly to prevent leaks and access by children. Most cities have designated sites for the proper disposal of used chemicals.


Additional fact sheets in the Nonpoint Pointers series (EPA-841-F-96-004)

Clean Water in Your Watershed, Terrene Institute, Washington, DC, 1993

Cleaner Water Through Conservation (EPA-841-B-95-002)

Handle With Care, Terrene Institute, Washington, DC, 1991

The Quality of Our Nation's Water: 1994 (EPA-841-S-95-004)

Xeriscape Landscaping: Preventing Pollution and Using Resources Efficiently (EPA-840-B-93-001)

To order any of the above EPA documents call or fax the National Center for Environmental Publications and Information.

Tel (513) 489-8190

Fax (513) 489-8695


U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Nonpoint Source Control Branch

Washington DC 20460


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