Environmental Effects of Urban Runoff

Much of the rainfall in sparsely developed areas is absorbed into the soil to be stored as ground water. In many rural areas, because of the presence of forests and pastures, much of the rainfall does not enter streams all at once, which helps prevent flooding and erosion.

In urbanized areas much of the vegetation and topsoil is replaced by impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots, driveways, and roofs. Rainfall that used to be absorbed into the ground now must be collected by storm sewers that send the water runoff into local streams, which might be unable to handle large amounts of water over a short period of time.

Excessive urban runoff can harm streams in a number of ways. Water running off impervious areas, such as roads and parking lots, can contain contaminants such as oil, salt, and fertilizer. If leaves and grass clippings are left in the gutter, the running water will also pick up extra nitrogen and phosphorus as it filters through them. This runoff and accompanying pollution often goes directly into streams where it can poison or kill fish and other water-borne animals, and cause excessive algae growth and oxygen depletion.

In addition, during summer storms, runoff from heated roofs, roads, and parking lots can cause a rapid increase in stream temperatures, which can result in thermal shock, and death of many fish and invertebrates.


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