Urban runoff is surface runoff of rainwater created by urbanization. This runoff is a major source of water pollution in many parts of the United States and other urban communities worldwide.
Impervious surfaces (roads, parking lots and sidewalks) are constructed during land development. During rain storms and other precipitation events, these surfaces (built from materials such as asphalt, cement, and concrete), along with rooftops, carry polluted stormwater to storm drains, instead of allowing the water to percolate through soil. This causes lowering of the water table (because groundwater recharge is lessened) and flooding since the amount of water that remains on the surface is greater. Most municipal storm sewer systems discharge stormwater, untreated, to streams, rivers and bays.
Pollutants in urban runoff
Water running off these impervious surfaces tends to pick up gasoline, motor oil, heavy metals, trash and other pollutants from roadways and parking lots, as well as fertilizers and pesticides from lawns. Roads and parking lots are major sources of nickel, copper, zinc, cadmium, lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are created as combustion byproducts of gasoline and other fossil fuels. Roof runoff contributes high levels of synthetic organic compounds and zinc (from galvanized gutters). Fertilizer use on residental lawns, parks and golf courses is a significant source of nitrates and phosphorus.
As stormwater is channeled into storm drains and surface waters, the natural sediment load discharged to receiving waters decreases, but the water flow and velocity increases. In fact, the impervious cover in a typical city prevents groundwater percolation five times than that of a typical woodland of the same size.
Effects of urban runoff
A 2008 report by the United States National Research Council identified urban runoff as a leading source of water quality problems:
...further declines in water quality remain likely if the land-use changes that typify more diffuse sources of pollution are not addressed... These include land-disturbing agricultural, silvicultural, urban, industrial, and construction activities from which hard-to-monitor pollutants emerge during wet-weather events. Pollution from these landscapes has been almost universally acknowledged as the most pressing challenge to the restoration of waterbodies and aquatic ecosystems nationwide.
The runoff also increases temperatures in streams, harming fish and other organisms. (A sudden burst of runoff from a rainstorm can cause a fish-killing shock of hot water.) Also, road salt used to melt snow on sidewalks and roadways can contaminate streams and groundwater aquifers.
Prevention and mitigation of urban runoff
Effective control of urban runoff involves reducing the velocity and flow of stormwater, as well as reducing pollutant discharges. A variety of stormwater management practices and systems may be used to reduce the effects of urban runoff. Some of these techniques, called best management practices (BMPs) in the U.S., focus on water quantity control, while others focus on improving water quality, and some perform both functions.
Pollution prevention practices include low impact development techniques, installation of green roofs and improved chemical handling (e.g. management of motor fuels & oil, fertilizers and pesticides). Runoff mitigation systems include infiltration basins, bioretention systems, constructed wetlands, retention basins and similar devices.