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Surface Water Contamination Surface Water Contamination

What kind of contamination is it?

Surface water is usually rain water that collects in surface water bodies, like oceans, lakes, or streams. Another source of surface water is groundwater that discharges to the surface from springs. Surface water pollution occurs when hazardous substances come into contact and either dissolve or physically mix with the water. Because of the close relationship between sediments and surface water, contaminated sediments are often considered part of surface water contamination. Sediments include the sand and soils on the bottom of an ocean, lake, or stream.

How did it get there?

Surface water can become contaminated in many ways. Surface water can be contaminated when hazardous substances are discharged directly from an outfall pipe or channel or when they receive contaminated storm water runoff. Direct discharges can come from industrial sources or from certain older sewer systems that overflow during wet weather. Storm water runoff becomes contaminated when rain water comes into contact with contaminated soil and either dissolves the contamination or carries contaminated soil particles. Surface water can also be contaminated when contaminated groundwater reaches the surface through a spring, or when contaminants in the air are deposited on the surface water. Contaminated soil particles carried by storm water runoff or contaminants from the air can sink to the bottom of a surface water body, mix with the sediment, and remain.

How does it hurt animals, plants and humans?

A change in the water chemistry due to surface water contamination can negatively affect all levels of an ecosystem. It can impact the health of lower food chain organisms and, consequently, the availability of the food supply up through the food chain. It can also impact the health of wetlands and impair their ability to support healthy ecosystems, control flooding, and filter pollutants from storm water runoff. Contaminated surface water can also affect the health of animals and humans when they drink or bathe in contaminated water or, for aquatic organisms, when they ingest contaminated sediments. One of the major concerns associated with contaminated surface water is the ability of aquatic organisms, like fish, to accumulate and concentrate contaminants in their bodies. When other animals or humans ingest these organisms, they receive a much higher dose of contamination than they would have if they had been directly exposed to the original source of the contamination.

How can we clean it up?

The most effective approach for cleaning up contaminated surface water is to prevent further discharges from contaminated sources and enable natural biological, chemical, and physical processes to break down the existing contamination. In some surface water bodies where natural processes are not enough to break down the contaminants, other cleanup approaches such as mixing and aeration may be required to further promote natural cleanup. A significant source of surface water contamination may be contaminated sediments. Contaminated sediments generally contain persistent contaminants and are difficult to clean up. Three main approaches to cleaning up contaminated sediments are: 1) remove them by dredging; 2) place a cover over them to prevent contact with the surface water; or 3) allow natural processes to cover them or break them down over time. For contamination that does not mix with surface water and floats on the surface, such as that encountered during an oil spill, contamination can be removed by skimming it from the surface using a "boom."

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