You, Me, and Water Quality: In Detail

Indiana Department of Environmental Management

Center of a River

Pipes aren’t our largest source of water pollution – we have laws and strict permits that control what comes from pipes. Now, our attention is shifting to other threats to water quality – nonpoint source pollution.

When most people hear “water pollution,” they think of large pipes coming from cities and industries that release water into rivers, lakes, and streams. Through the actions of the Clean Water Act and agencies such as the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, these pipes aren’t our biggest threat to clean water. Now, attention is turned to nonpoint source pollution, which is a big problem for all of us. Nonpoint source pollution is the water that flows over fields, lawns, parking lots, and even our own backyards, which carries things that can harm our waterways.

Nonpoint source pollution starts with rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the ground. As this water, or runoff, moves along, it picks up and carries away natural and synthetic pollutants. This water eventually flows through storm drains, small ditches, and even straight into our lakes, rivers, and wetlands. It can also get into underground sources of drinking water.

When we talk about this type of pollution, we often talk about watersheds. The word “watershed” may not be familiar to you, but it describes an important part of our natural world. What we do each day in watersheds affects the quality of water in our lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. Everyone lives in a watershed and what one person does in a watershed can affect everyone else in that watershed.

A watershed is an area of land that drains water to lake, river, or stream. Because water flows downhill, watershed boundaries are always located on the top of hills or mountains. Rain falling on one side of the hill will flow into one water body, while rain falling on the other side of the hill will flow into another water body. A bathtub works just like a watershed. Watersheds vary in size. Some are small in area, while others can cover thousands of acres. Watersheds can span several counties, include rural and urban areas, cross state borders, and contain many networks of streams, lakes, and other connected waterbodies.

Watersheds are the source of the water we drink. We boat, swim, and fish in the water that drains from our watersheds into lakes and creeks downstream. Wildlife, fish, birds and plants depend on healthy watersheds for healthy habitats. A watershed is more than just land, it is also a community. A watershed community includes all the people and natural resources located within a watershed.

Edge of a Construction Site

Constructing roads, buildings, and moving earth can cause sediment to enter our lakes and rivers. Fortunately, project planning and following state rules will prevent these problems from even happening.

Whenever vegetation is removed from the land’s surface, the soil becomes exposed to the erosive effects of wind and water. Although erosion is a natural process, it can be accelerated greatly by human action that disturbs the land’s surface. Studies have shown that the amount of soil eroded on a per-acre basis can be many times greater on active construction sites than other land-use types. The loss of soil through erosion commonly results in the loss of good topsoil and the associated minerals and nutrients required for plant establishment and growth. Soil erosion not only causes on-site damage problems, but can also negatively impact water quality downstream through sediment pollution. Sediment is the number one water quality pollutant by volume in Indiana and causes many problems. Sediment accumulation in wetlands can reduce their capacity to retain storm water and its value to wildlife. Sediment deposition in storm sewers can reduce their efficiency and capacity. Sediment, and accompanying nutrients, often reaches lakes and leads to algal blooms, a decrease in lake depth, and a decrease in the recreational and aesthetic value of the lake.

It is important to practice effective storm water management and treatment of storm water runoff before, during, and after construction of homes, roads, and businesses. Otherwise, the landowner and/or public may end up paying more for project reconstruction and replacement/maintenance of existing infrastructure. Furthermore, public environmental awareness demands that land users work with nature, and not against it, to protect Indiana’s land and water resources. We can protect our lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands by following proper construction practices.

Sewage Treatment Plant

We treat the water that comes from our toilets, our washing machines, and from businesses and industry in modern facilities called wastewater treatment plants. This technology treats and removes pollutants from waste water so that when the process is completed, the water is safe enough to put back into nearby rivers and streams.

Wastewater treatment plants (sometimes referred to as sewage plants) are an important part of modern infrastructure. These are facilities specifically designed to reduce pollutants in wastewater to a level nature can handle. Wastewater is used water. It includes substances such as human waste, food scraps, oils, soaps and chemicals. Wastewater is water that comes from our homes, businesses, and even industry. This water is transported via miles and miles of pipes to a wastewater treatment plant, where state-of-the-art technology is used to clean the water and insure it meets federal and state water quality standards. Wastewater treatment plants use combinations of technologies to screen, settle, treat, or biologically change pollutants to protect our waters. Certain types of industries generate wastewater that needs special pre-treatment before the water can even be sent to a regular wastewater treatment plant.

Wastewater can include storm runoff. Most storm water, however, runs off from our yards, parking lots, fields, and thousands of other locations straight into our rivers and streams, bypassing waste water treatment plants. This is why we all need to do our part, starting right at home, to address the sources of nonpoint source pollution and protect our waters.

At Home (Oil and Other Pollutants)

Protecting water quality starts right in our own backyards. Everything we put on our lawns and driveways can get washed into nearby rivers and streams, where it can cause water quality problems. There are simple things everyone can do to stop this from happening.

Protecting our lakes, rivers, and streams starts in our own backyards. Every day, you and I are doing things that can hurt water quality. From not picking up after our pets, to over-fertilizing our yards, to letting oils and chemicals leak from our cars, these small things can really cause big problems. Most water that runs off from our yards goes into storm drains and in many cases, those drains don’t go to a wastewater treatment plant. Instead, the water flows straight into the closest river, lake or stream and carries all those nonpoint source pollutants along with it.

Here are some easy things we all can do to help stop nonpoint source pollution:

  • In Your Yard: pick up pet waste, use low to no phosphorus fertilizer, and always follow the label when applying or handling any fertilizer, herbicide, or insecticide.
  • Clean Up: never dump unwanted chemicals, cleaners or used oil down the storm drains or on the ground.
  • Before You Flush: Maintain your septic system. Pump it out regularly-at least once every three years-to avoid overload or failure.
  • Save that Water: use a rain barrel or a rain garden to help keep water from running off across your lawn. Plus, that water will come in handy to irrigate thirsty plants in dry summer months.

Water Tower

Many people in cities and towns get drinking water from these water towers. Did you know that this water needs to be cleaned before we can drink it and that nonpoint source pollution can harm our drinking water?

When we think of drinking water, we often think of water towers filled with cold and clean water, ready to come out our faucets and fountains. What we often forget is where that water comes from and how much we need to do to insure that water is safe to drink. We rely on our reservoirs, our lakes, our rivers, and our groundwater to fill those water towers. Before that water can be used, we often need to filter and clean the water using expensive treatment processes. Nonpoint source pollution is one of those reasons. When chemicals run off from your backyard, they can end up in our drinking water. We can save money and keep our water clean be learning as much as we can about nonpoint source pollution and taking steps to stop it before it becomes a problem.


Wetlands can act like natural filters to help improve water quality, but we need to respect wetlands as an important part of Indiana’s waterway network. What is a wetland? Find out more and learn how wetlands help improve water quality.

Indiana has wetlands and they are important to water quality. Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil for part or all of the year, including the growing season for plants. Wetlands are in-between places, which lie between deep water in lakes and streams and dry land. Wetlands support an array of plants and animals which have adapted to life in saturated or flooded conditions. Wetlands have soils which differ from soils in dry areas, exhibiting characteristics that show the soil developed in saturated conditions.

Nationally, since the late 1600s we have lost roughly 50% of the wetlands in the lower 48 states. Indiana has lost a large number of its wetlands. In the 1800s and 1900s we converted millions of acres of wetlands into farms, cities, and roads, and we converted wetlands to protect our health. Before we began converting wetlands, there were over 5.6 million acres of wetlands in the state, wetlands such as bogs, fens, wet prairies, dune and swales, cypress swamps, marshes, and swamps. In the early 1700s, wetlands covered 25% of the total area of Indiana. That number has been greatly reduced. By the late 1980s over 4.7 million acres of wetlands had been lost – wetlands now cover less than 4% of Indiana.

Wetland plants and soils naturally store and filter nutrients and sediments. Calm wetland waters, with their flat surface and flow characteristics, allow these materials to settle out of the water column, where plants in the wetland take up certain nutrients from the water. As a result, our lakes, rivers and streams are cleaner and our drinking water is safer. Constructed wetlands can even be used to clean wastewater, when properly designed.

Septic System

Some homes are not close enough to a sewer system, and instead use a septic system to clean up water that comes from toilets, sinks, and bathtubs. This technology can work well, but it needs regular maintenance to work properly.

Maintaining your septic system is one important way you can help keep your watershed healthy. A septic system works by taking waste water from your home and piping this water into the septic tank buried in the yard. Bacteria in the tank break down the some of the waste in the tank. Solids and sludge separate in the tank, creating a nutrient-rich liquid that is spread into the soil by a drain field. To keep septic systems working well, you should have a professional clean out your septic system at least once every three years. With proper maintenance, a septic system can last 30 years or longer. It is much cheaper to properly maintain a septic system than it is to repair or replace it once it fails. A failed septic system is unable to properly drain, resulting in raw waste overflowing back into the home or up onto the lawn. This can cause problems for you and for any nearby stream! Some signs of a failing septic system include slow drainage from toilets, sinks and tubs; damp spots around the septic tank or drain field, even when it hasn’t been raining; and bad odors coming from the yard. If you think your septic system is experiencing problems, contact the health department or a professional septic system technician immediately.

To insure your septic system runs well and doesn’t cause water pollution, do maintain it and never drive over the drain field, plant trees on top of the field, overload the system with excessive water use, put grease, garbage or harmful chemicals down the drain, flush diapers, sanitary napkins or kitty litter down the toilet or overuse your garbage disposal. The Indiana State Department of Health also has more information on septic system maintenance, installation, and repair in Indiana.

Residential Well

Many homes get their drinking water from a well right on the property. We need to take steps to protect these wells so that nonpoint source pollution does not harm our valuable drinking water.

We take many actions to protect our water in rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands, but we also need to protect ground water. Water that is underground is found in aquifers. An aquifer is natural underground layer, often of sand or gravel, which has the ability to receive, store, and transmit water. There are two types of aquifers – confined and unconfined. A confined aquifer is where the ground water is located between layers of impermeable substances like clay or dense rock. When tapped by a well, water in confined aquifers is forced up, sometimes above the soil surface. This is how a flowing artesian well is formed. This type of aquifer is also known as an artesian or a pressure aquifer. In contrast, an unconfined aquifer is not constrained, which means the water table is at or near atmospheric pressure and is at the upper boundary of the soils that can hold the water. Because the aquifer is not under pressure the water level in a well is the same as the water table outside the well.

Nonpoint source pollution can enter our ground water and cause problems. We can protect ground water from nonpoint source pollution by insuring that wells are properly sealed, maintained, and closed following proper procedures. We need to work with county health officials to properly locate septic systems and keep them running properly. We need to protect the area surrounding wells where we pump water. Contaminants poured on the ground in this area can seep into the soils and the subsurface materials where the ground water is located. Insuring that nothing is spilled, leaked, injected, or runs off into this area is vital to protecting the water supply.

Crop Field

Farming produces the food we need and it involves turning the earth, applying fertilizers and chemicals to control nuisance plants and insects. There are a number of techniques farmers can use to insure they prevent nonpoint source pollution, save soil, and protect water quality.

Farmers have always known that keeping the soil on the land is important to the success of their farm and to water quality. The loss of soil through erosion commonly results in the loss of good topsoil and the associated minerals and nutrients required for plant establishment and growth. Soil erosion not only causes on-site damage problems, but can also negatively impact water quality downstream through sediment pollution. Sediment is the number one water quality pollutant by volume in Indiana and causes many problems. Sediment accumulation in wetlands can reduce their capacity to retain storm water and its value to wildlife. Sediment deposition in storm sewers can reduce their efficiency and capacity. Sediment, and accompanying nutrients, often reaches lakes and leads to algal blooms, a decrease in lake depth, and a decrease in the recreational and aesthetic value of the lake.

Farmers have learned a number of important day-to-day practices to keep soil on the land to help protect their livelihood as well as water quality. A few examples are listed below:

  • No Till Farming: Crops are planted directly into the soil without disturbing the soil with plowing or discing. Old stubble and plant parts from past crops are left on the surface of the ground to reduce erosion by rain drops and runoff.
  • Nutrient Management: Managing the amount, source, placement, form and timing of the application of nutrients (includes commercial fertilizer and manure) to insure plants and soil take up these inputs before rain can wash them away.
  • Rotational Grazing: Grazing land is divided into smaller areas that are allowed limited grazing on a rotational basis. Rotational grazing prevents erosion and deterioration of pasture due to overgrazing.
  • Grassed Waterways: A broad shallow channel natural or constructed lined with grass cover to channel water off of fields with minimum soil erosion.
  • Buffers Strips: Strips of grasses, trees or shrubs that filter runoff and remove pollutants before they reach our waters. Buffers also prevent erosion along streams and lakes.
  • Fencing and Alternate Water Supplies: Excluding livestock from direct access to lakes and streams enhances prevents trampling of vegetation and subsequent exposure of erosion-prone bare soil. This also keeps livestock waste out of the stream.
  • Integrated Pest Management: Using environmentally sensitive techniques and strategies to manage weeds, insects, diseases and other organisms that can damage crops, which reduces chemicals that can run off into streams, lakes, and rivers.
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