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Nutrients in water are chemicals such as calcium, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, various trace minerals, salts, and even decomposing organic material. Some nutrients occur naturally in water in varying amounts. However, chemicals that can serve as nutrients that are due to runoff from farms, urban areas, industrial waste, or sanitation effluent can create significant pollution problems as well as long range health problems for both humans and the environment.
Natural nutrients are produced by the naturally occurring chemical action of water and other elements or compounds that leach into the watershed. The farther downstream it is from the watershed at mountain peaks, the more water is likely to contain oxygen, carbon dioxide, dissolved calcium compounds, and other substances. If the water in a stream begins in an area where it moves through petroleum seeps, coal beds, sulfur beds, iron bearing rocks, or other kinds of rocks with water soluble minerals, it will contain more naturally occurring nutrients.
The mineral content may make the water heavy in iron so that it clouds the bottom of ice water glasses in the summer as it combines with dissolved calcium carbonate to form a precipitate. Or it may be that the water is acidic, salty, or naturally fluorinated. If a strong basic solution is dissolved in the water, such as in the alkali waters of the western United States, the water will have an unpleasant taste.
As natural nutrients are cycled through natural ecosystems they have an important impact. If the ecosystem is naturally rich in nutrients then plants grow rapidly. Among the effects this has is the amount of carbon that is put into plant life and the amount of oxygen given off by plants. There may be consequences from this ecological balance that affects even the global climate.
All of the dissolved chemicals and organic material in water provide nutrients. Some, however, may be pesticides or herbicides that have an immediate and long term negative impact. These will ultimately be degraded in the environment; however, they are not the chemicals that are usually included when referring to nutrients.
Eutrophication occurs when increases in chemical elements lead to population explosions of microorganisms such as algae and blue-green bacteria. These become so thick that light is blocked. The light dependent organisms die, which creates a cultural eutrophication. As plants in nutrient deficient areas are exposed to polluting quantities of nutrients, their roots grow in response and their intake of other plant nutrients is increased. The varied growth rates of plants can produce situations in which some plants crowd out others that were a part of the natural system.
Vegetation that grows in rivers and in the waters that cover the continental shelves of the world respond to nutrient changes in several ways. The slower growing sea grasses, the phytoplankton, and other parts of the food chain change in quantity affecting the natural character of the ecosystem.
Nutrients can be readily consumed by a variety of microscopic plants and animals and cause their growth in watersheds. In effect, they act as fertilizers or food boosters that stimulate growth, which is often harmful to the environment’s natural balance when some of these enter into the food chain. Consequently, of great importance to the health of water supplies, including the vast oceans, are the great quantities of industrial and urban wastes that enter water streams. Paper mills are a major source of nutrient chemicals. Their effluents often can be detrimental to riverine food webs and are also capable of reducing oxygen content, thus resulting in fish kills.
The presence of polluting chemicals that act as nutrients and come in large volumes from human sources poses a significant threat to human life. The volume of renewable fresh water on Earth is a small fraction of the total volume of water; about half of all fresh water is currently in use in some fashion around the globe. Fresh water supplies are basic to terrestrial life and to freshwater ecosystems. Great numbers of agricultural and industrial users of water depend upon clean fresh water. Among the chemicals that are of serious concern are ammonia, phosphates, and nitrates.
In 1991, the U.S. Congress directed the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to develop a National WaterQuality Assessment (NAWQA) Program. It works with federal, state, and local governments and agencies to examine the water quality in the United States. In its studies, the program has found that in some areas pollution has been a positive addition to a nutrient poor watershed. However, the reverse is more often the case.
One effect of dissolved organic matter in polluted water is that it acts to deplete both nitrogen and phosphorus from timberlands. Agriculture is a major source of polluting nutrients in watersheds. Farming and other agricultural activities take place on the best lands; the margins are usually less productive and are often adjacent to wetlands that connect with the watershed. Water, moving toward lower elevations, carries nutrients like fertilizer toward wet areas where the excessive nutrients will move into the watershed.
The effects of polluting nutrients are most observable when they produce dramatic toxic effects on the aquatic life. Watersheds can recover from occasional polluting, but long term damage occurs with prolonged exposure. As the polluting continues, the habitat traps and processes the nutrients. The buffering zones along riparian areas are overcome and the fauna and flora of an area are affected. The food chain is soon involved because chemicals are absorbed and passed up the chain with significant toxic effects.
When polluting nutrients affect an area, ecologists and conservationists may seek to restore the area to its natural state. This requires elimination of the nutrient pollution at its source(s), removal of excessive growth, and restoring native species. Elimination of nutrients that affect the food chain in systems in which sewage plays a role generally requires bacteria, molds, and other microscopic organisms. Sewage systems that use ponds for aeration will not become nutrient polluting sources if they are not overworked. If their systems are kept balanced then a healthy environment is the result.
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- Brian Kronvang, Jadran Faganeli, and Nives Ogrinc, eds., Interactions Between Sediments and Water (Springer-Verlag, 2006);
- Colin F. Moffat, , Environmental Contaminants in Food (CRC Press 1999);
- National Research Council, Identifying Future Drinking Water Contaminants (National Academies Press, 2000);
- a., Nutrient Management in Agricultural Watersheds: A Wetlands Solution (Wageningen Academic Publishers, 2005);
- Piotr Szefer, Metals, Metalloids, and Radionuclides in the Baltic Sea Ecosystems (Elsevier Science & Technology Books, 2002).