Stormwater, Ecosystems & You, Part 4: Groundwater and the Rural Landscape

This is the fourth installment in a series of articles highlighting stormwater runoff, its effect on ecosystems and how engineering and regulations mitigate its impacts. This installment addresses groundwater and the effects of stormwater runoff in a rural landscape.

So far in this series we have talked about stormwater runoff issues as they directly pertain to urbanized and developed land use. But what role does stormwater runoff play in a rural setting?

As runoff eventually settles into undeveloped or rural surfaces it can affect the quality of groundwater quality. Many factors play into the release of water into an aquifer beneath our feet, including the physical and biological properties of soil.

As the Copper River Watershed Project notes, “Polluted runoff is now widely recognized by environmental scientists and the EPA as the single largest threat to water quality in the United States.”

Outside of an urban area, which likely is covered by impervious surfaces like parking lots and roads, roofs of housing and building, the rural setting’s ground surface is typically more porous, so runoff is more likely to seep into or infiltrate through the soil to the water within that soil, called groundwater. There are also more surface water bodies outside of urban areas that collect that runoff. Nonpoint source stormwater pollution may also originate from multiple, sometimes unregulated, sources.

It’s obvious that harsh substances, such as pesticides, contaminate the water they touch. But natural nonpoint source pollutants, such as sediment collected upstream, can cause ecological imbalance in the water body it eventually ends up in, for example. Other pollutants include pathogens, fertilizers/nutrients, metals and hydrocarbons, which also degrade surface water and groundwater.

There are a variety of potential sources contaminating groundwater including, landfills, improperly designed or old septic systems, chemicals and road salts, uncontrolled hazardous wastes.

Role of agricultural operations

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Pollutants that result from farming and ranching include sediment, nutrients, pathogens, pesticides, metals, and salts.” Some common activities and factors that contribute to agricultural stormwater issues include:

  • Sedimentation
  • Nutrients
  • Animal feeding operations
  • Livestock grazing
  • Irrigation
  • Pesticides

Mitigation techniques

Fortunately, impacts on groundwater and surface water from agricultural and related activities can be minimized with management practices. By adapting those structural and vegetative processes to the specific site and its surrounding geography, they will promote soil conservation and can reduce polluted runoff.

The federal and state government also provide educational and financial resources for farmers and ranchers to implement measures into their everyday operations. Some mitigation strategies suggested by those entities include:

  • Utilizing a conservative tillage schedule
  • Managing manure with a plan
  • Landscaping to create conservation buffers for catching runoff
  • Nutrient management
  • Controlling waterway access for livestock

Forested areas

In forested areas, most direct rainfall is absorbed into the soil and makes its way directly into the groundwater or is dispersed into surface water bodies via seeping and springs. With the surrounding vegetation and more natural conditions, stormwater runoff and flooding is less significant.

However, when a forested area is logged or cleared for development, the ground surface becomes more exposed and susceptible to absorbing pollutants into the groundwater. Also, when streamflows increase during storms, sediment and pollutants are more readily transported across those areas and erosion is more likely.

How can we help?

Governmental regulations can be tricky to decipher. With their well-rounded expertise and knowledge of regulations, Moore’s Environmental Team can help devise concrete solutions that meet those standards and find financial assistance to implement the solutions. Specific services we provide include:

  • Regulatory Process and Strategy
  • Environmental Review (EAW, EA, EIS)
  • National Environment Policy Act Expertise
  • Site Constraints/Fatal Flaws Analysis
  • Environmental Site and Land Use Assessment
  • Threatened and Endangered Species
  • Zoning Ordinance
  • Federal, State, and Local Regulatory Compliance
  • Regulatory Compliance & Permits
  • Best Management Practices – Design & Implementation
  • Funding Research and Assistance

Sources: How Does Stormwater Run-Off Affect Rural Communities?
               Runoff: Surface and Overland Water Runoff (usgs.gov)
               Protecting Water Quality from Agricultural Runoff (epa.gov)

See also: Stormwater, Ecosystems & You, Part 1: Overview
                Stormwater, Ecosystems & You, Part 2: Urban Development
                Stormwater, Ecosystems & You, Part 3: MS4 Compliance