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Water: Outreach & Communication

Managing Nonpoint Source Pollution from Agriculture

Pointer No. 6

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 Although the information provided here was accurate and current when first created, it is now outdated.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 United States has over 330 million acres of agricultural land that produce an abundant supply of low-cost, nutritious food and other products. American agriculture is noted worldwide for its high productivity, quality, and efficiency in delivering goods to the consumer. However, when improperly managed, agricultural activities can affect water quality.

The most recent National Water Quality Inventory reports that agricultural nonpoint source (NPS) pollution is the leading source of water quality impacts to surveyed rivers and lakes, the third largest source of impairments to surveyed estuaries, and also a major contributor to ground water contamination and wetlands degradation.

Agricultural activities that cause NPS pollution include confined animal facilities, grazing, plowing, pesticide spraying, irrigation, fertilizing, planting, and harvesting. The major agricultural NPS pollutants that result from these activities are sediment, nutrients, pathogens, pesticides, and salts. Agricultural activities also can damage habitat and stream channels. Agricultural impacts on surface water and ground water can be minimized by properly managing activities that can cause NPS pollution.

Numerous government programs are available to help people design and pay for management approaches to prevent and control NPS pollution. For example, over 40 percent of section 319 Clean Water Act grants were used to control agricultural NPS pollution. Also, several U.S. Department of Agriculture and state-funded programs provide cost-share, technical assistance, and economic incentives to implement NPS pollution management practices. Many people use their own resources to adopt technologies and practices to limit water quality impacts caused by agricultural activities.

Managing Sedimentation.Sedimentation occurs when wind or water runoff carries soil particles from an area, such as a farm field, and transports them to a water body, such as a stream or lake. Excessive sedimentation clouds the water, which reduces the amount of sunlight reaching aquatic plants; covers fish spawning areas and food supplies; and clogs the gills of fish. In addition, other pollutants like phosphorus, pathogens, and heavy metals are often attached to the soil particles and wind up in the water bodies with the sediment. Farmers and ranchers can reduce erosion and sedimentation by 20 to 90 percent by applying management measures to control the volume and flow rate of runoff water, keep the soil in place, and reduce soil transport.

Managing Nutrients. Nutrients such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium in the form of fertilizers, manure, sludge, irrigation water, legumes, and crop residues are applied to enhance production. When they are applied in excess of plant needs, nutrients can wash into aquatic ecosystems where they can cause excessive plant growth, which reduces swimming and boating opportunities, creates a foul taste and odor in drinking water, and kills fish. In drinking water, high concentrations of nitrate can cause methemoglobinemia, a potentially fatal disease in infants also known as blue baby syndrome. Farmers can implement nutrient management plans which help maintain high yields and save money on the use of fertilizers while reducing NPS pollution.

Managing Confined Animal Facilities.By confining animals to areas or lots, farmers and ranchers can efficiently feed and maintain livestock. But these confined areas become major sources of animal waste. Runoff from poorly managed facilities can carry pathogens (bacteria and viruses), nutrients, and oxygen-demanding substances that contaminate shellfishing areas and other major water quality problems. Ground water can also be contaminated by seepage. Discharges can be limited by storing and managing facility wastewater and runoff with an appropriate waste management system.

Managing Irrigation.Irrigation water is applied to supplement natural precipitation or to protect crops against freezing or wilting. Inefficient irrigation can cause water quality problems. In arid areas, for example, where rainwater does not carry residues deep into the soil, excessive irrigation can concentrate pesticides, nutrients, disease-carrying microorganisms, and salts-all of which impact water quality-in the top layer of soil. Farmers can reduce NPS pollution from irrigation by improving water use efficiency. Actual crop needs can be measured with a variety of equipment.

Managing Pesticides.Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are used to kill pests and control the growth of weeds and fungus. These chemicals can enter and contaminate water through direct application, runoff, wind transport, and atmospheric deposition. They can kill fish and wildlife, poison food sources, and destroy the habitat that animals use for protective cover. To reduce NPS contamination from pesticides, people can apply Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques based on the specific soils, climate, pest history, and crop for a particular field. IPM helps limit pesticide use and manages necessary applications to minimize pesticide movement from the field.

Managing Livestock Grazing.Overgrazing exposes soils, increases erosion, encourages invasion by undesirable plants, destroys fish habitat, and reduces the filtration of sediment necessary for building streambanks, wet meadows, and floodplains. To reduce the impacts of grazing on water quality, farmers and ranchers can adjust grazing intensity, keep livestock out of sensitive areas, provide alternative sources of water and shade, and revegetate rangeland and pastureland.


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

Agriculture and Wetlands: A Compilation of Factsheets (EPA-503/9-92-003)

Alternative Agriculture, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC 1989

Guidance Specifying Management Measures for Sources of Nonpoint Pollution in Coastal Waters, Chapter 2 (EPA-840-B-92-002)

Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, Vol. 45, No. 1, Jan/Feb 1990 (EPA-841-N-90-100)

Livestock Grazing on Western Riparian Areas, EPA Region 8, Denver, CO

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

Soil And Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1993

USDA National Resources Inventory, Natural Resources Conservation Service

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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