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PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA,  ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 26 April 2018

Summary and Keywords

Since the industrial revolution, societies across the globe have observed significant urbanization and population growth. Newer technologies, industries, and manufacturing plants have evolved over the period to develop sophisticated infrastructures and amenities for mankind. To achieve this, communities have utilized and exploited natural resources, resulting in sustained environmental degradation and pollution. Among various adverse ecological effects, nutrient contamination in water is posing serious problems for the water bodies worldwide.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are the basic constituents for the growth and reproduction of living organisms and occur naturally in the soil, air, and water. However, human activities are affecting their natural cycles and causing excessive dumping into the surface and groundwater systems. Higher concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus-based nutrients in water resources lead to eutrophication, reduction in sunlight, lower dissolved oxygen levels, changing rates of plant growth, reproduction patterns, and overall deterioration of water quality. Economically, this pollution can impact the fishing industry, recreational businesses, property values, and tourism. Also, using nutrient-polluted lakes or rivers as potable water sources may result in excess nitrates in drinking water, production of disinfection by-products, and associated health effects.

Nutrients contamination in water commonly originates from point and non-point sources. Point sources are the specific discharge locations, like wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), industries, and municipal waste systems; whereas, non-point sources are discrete dischargers, like agricultural lands and storm water runoffs. Compared to non-point sources, point sources are easier to identify, regulate, and treat. WWTPs receive sewage from domestic, business, and industrial settings. With growing pollution concerns, nutrients removal and recovery at treatment plants is gaining significant attention. Newer chemical and biological nutrient removal processes are emerging to treat wastewater. Nitrogen removal mainly involves nitrification-denitrification processes; whereas, phosphorus removal includes biological uptake, chemical precipitation, or filtration. In regards to non-point sources, authorities are encouraging best management practices to control pollution loads to waterways.

Governments are opting for novel strategies like source nutrient reduction schemes, bioremediation processes, stringent effluent limits, and nutrient trading programs. Source nutrient reduction strategies such as discouraging or banning use of phosphorus-rich detergents and selective chemicals, industrial pretreatment programs, and stormwater management programs can be effective by reducing nutrient loads to WWTPs. Bioremediation techniques such as riparian areas, natural and constructed wetlands, and treatment ponds can capture nutrients from agricultural lands or sewage treatment plant effluents. Nutrient trading programs allow purchase/sale of equivalent environmental credits between point and non-point nutrient dischargers to manage overall nutrient discharges in watersheds at lower costs.

Nutrient pollution impacts are quite evident and documented in many parts of the world. Governments and environmental organizations are undertaking several waterways remediation projects to improve water quality and restore aquatic ecosystems. Shrinking freshwater reserves and rising water demands are compelling communities to make efficient use of the available water resources. With smarter choices and useful strategies, nutrient pollution in the water can be contained to a reasonable extent. As responsible members of the community, it is important for us to understand this key environmental issue as well as to learn the current and future needs to alleviate this problem.

Keywords: point sources, non-point sources, nutrients, eutrophication, wastewater treatment, biological nutrients removal, resource recovery, remediation techniques, restoration

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