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The Impact of Nitrogen and Phosphorus on Water Quality

The Impact of Nitrogen and Phosphorus on Water Quality

December 2011

The Impact of and on Quality

Phosphorus and nitrogen are key elements to on further reduced phosphorus in the Great . Phosphorus is the most abundant Lakes and Ohio River basins. Annual harmful algal element in our bodies, found mostly in our and blooms in were almost nonexistent in the teeth. Phosphorus also is found in such as soft 1980s and early 1990s. drinks and soda, and cleaning products. Nitrogen makes up about 78 percent of the Impacts of Algal Blooms we breathe and is a major component of foods and fertilizers. Since the mid-1990s, increasing levels of , particularly dissolved reactive phosphorus, have Small amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen, been measured in Ohio waterways. Dissolved commonly referred to as nutrients, are naturally reactive phosphorus is a form of phosphorus that is present in and water. Both elements are soluble in . Dissolved reactive phosphorus is essential to healthy growth. more readily available for plant growth than particulate phosphorus. Both and Most nutrients in our environment come from commercial fertilizers have relatively high activities, primarily through the addition of fertilizers concentrations of soluble phosphorus. to crops, and gardens, from municipal and home systems and animal manure runoff Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio has been from feedlots and fields. particularly hard hit by a phosphorus-enriched environment. A severe in 2010 virtually However, in excess they are the main causes of shut down the lake. Algal blooms have returned to enrichment in Ohio’s lakes and streams. western Lake Erie at not seen since the Nitrogen, in the form of , can leach into ground 1970s. Record phosphorus levels recorded in recent water where it can contaminate water . years by Heidelberg University researchers in the Maumee and Sandusky rivers, the largest Lake Erie History tributaries, indicate a very close relationship between phosphorus loads from these watersheds and the problems created by nutrient severity of harmful algal blooms. enrichment are not a new issue. Gradual declines in water quality across the led Congress Harmful algal blooms (HABs) consist of blue-green to pass the Clean Water Act in 1972 to address a . Blue-green algae really are not algae at all; host of contamination issues, including nutrient they are bacteria scientifically known as pollution. Early focus was put on reducing pollution . HABs can be unsightly, smell and from point sources – the pipes releasing municipal when they die they can reduce levels in the and industrial wastewater into the nation’s water, causing fish and shellfish to suffocate. Algal waterways. blooms also reduce to lakebeds, reducing or eliminating the growth of beneficial aquatic . Construction of new plants led This to declining and favors pollution- to a significant decline in phosphorus loading. Around tolerant fish such as carp over less tolerant fish such the same , adoption of no-till and as darters and bass. the elimination of phosphorus from

Ohio EPA, Division of Water P.O. Box 1049 Columbus, Ohio 43216-1049 Printed on recycled (614) 644-2011 Ohio EPA is an Equal Opportunity Employer www.epa.ohio.gov

The Impact of Nitrogen and Phosphorus on Water Quality

As lakes and streams drain into other bodies of concentrations generally do not pose a human water, the combined effects of nutrient loads from risk. is toxic to aquatic life and a common multiple streams can cause oxygen-depleted “dead cause of fish kills following large agricultural runoff zones” downstream. Two -known “dead zones” events, industrial and agricultural spills. exist in Lake Erie’s central basin and in the . Ohio EPA has been working to address nutrient loading issues through the most recent years of Algal blooms can clog filters and nutrient build up, and has a monitoring and response sometimes produce toxins that are harmful to both plan in place. However the results have not been human and animal health. effective enough as nutrient enrichment continues to rise in our waterways. The presence of algal toxins at high levels has led to beach advisories in Ohio in recent years. While Ohio’s Plan necessary to protect public health, the water quality advisories have combined with aesthetic Ohio EPA is partnering with other state agencies to appearances to cause significant economic develop a state nutrient reduction strategy that will hardships to that rely on recreation and set goals to achieve clean waterways. There will be a . In addition, algal blooms to higher renewed emphasis on removing nutrients from point drinking costs to address and sources such as municipal wastewater treatment issues. Fortunately, the typical water treatment plants. It also will include a focus on strategies to processes remove most algal toxins from drinking accelerate progress in reducing nutrients from water. nonpoint sources such as and agricultural runoff. Other Nutrient Problems The strategies will be developed with input from Nutrient enrichment from nitrogen compounds citizens, , stakeholders and affected (, and ammonia) can create problems communities. The goal will be to reduce nutrient even when algal blooms are not involved. Nitrogen, loads significantly within five to 10 years. Grants and in the form of nitrate, can infiltrate ground water and educational efforts will be offered to assist programs. drain or run off into . Drinking water advisories are issued when nitrate levels are For More Information detected at concentrations greater than 10 mg/L. Read the companion fact sheet Ohio’s Nutrient At these concentrations, nitrates can cause a Reduction Strategy. potentially fatal disorder known as blue baby syndrome in infants six months old and younger. This Visit the Division of Surface Water website occurs when the converts nitrate to www.epa.ohio.gov/dsw . The risk is higher for infants; however, it also can be harmful to pregnant women and individuals Or contact: with certain gastric issues. Dan Dudley (614) 644-2876 The maximum contaminant limit for nitrite in drinking [email protected] water is 1 mg/L. High nitrite levels are not common in drinking water. Most of our exposure to nitrites is from and nitrates in drinking water. Ammonia