Groundwater Pollution VS Surface Water Pollution: Which is Worse?


Two of the most important environmental problems of our time are the poisoning of groundwater and surface waters. But how do they differ from one another? Why is it vital to know the difference between surface water pollution and groundwater pollution? Because it can be more challenging to detect and clean up than surface water pollution, groundwater pollution poses a higher risk to ecosystems and public health. Continue reading to find out more about the differences between these two types of pollution and why it is important to recognize them.


Groundwater pollution is a more serious environmental issue than surface water pollution.

  • Groundwater pollution can be harder to detect and clean up due to its underground nature.
  • Surface water pollution is more visible and easier to monitor, but it can still have long-term effects on the environment.
  • Groundwater contamination can lead to health risks for humans and animals that rely on it for drinking water.

Learn more about the differences between groundwater and surface water pollution, and how they both impact our environment!

Are you worried about the potential problems of groundwater and surface water pollution where you live?

Do you find yourself often wondering which types of pollution you might be facing in your own home?

Are you concerned about which type may be worse for you?

In this article, you’ll find out about both ground and surface water pollution, and you’ll also learn how to tell if these issues are a problem in your neighborhood. You’ll discover how to tell the difference between both types of pollution, and you’ll even find out what’s being done to combat both groundwater and surface water pollution in the United States.

In the first part of the article, you’ll walk through the types of groundwater pollution, how groundwater works, and why it’s so important. You’ll learn about the common pollutants that cause this problem, where they come from, and how they’re being handled. In the second half of the article, you’ll learn the same information about surface water so you can compare the problems between both surface and groundwater pollution.

Understanding the differences between these two types of pollution is the first step toward figuring out which one is the bigger problem where you live. Once you’ve learned that, you’ll be better able to reach out and make a difference no matter where you are.

Read on to start learning.

What is Groundwater?

Groundwater is, more or less, what it sounds like: water that can be found underground. This water might not be visible under normal circumstances, but it is vastly important to all of us, whether we realize it or not.

groundwater pollution

70% of the planet is covered in water, which might sound like an awful lot. You might even have a hard time believing there’s any sort of water shortage anywhere in the world with numbers like that! However, only 1% of this water is available for human consumption. Almost all of the water on the surface of the planet is saltwater, which of course isn’t very good for drinking. Of the 1% of fresh water available on Earth, 99% of that water can be found underground. So, in other words, only 1% of freshwater, which is only 1% of the water on the planet, is found in surface water. Sounds complicated, right?

Basically, this means we all rely on groundwater almost all the time for our drinking, cooking, washing, and day to day activities. Almost all water that goes through water treatment facilities to get cleaned up for use in homes, businesses, and stores around the world comes from groundwater, not surface water. It stands to reason, then, that groundwater pollution is definitely something we all need to be concerned with.

How does Groundwater Work?

Groundwater works on the basis of the hydrologic cycle, which is a natural process that is a deeply important part of the Earth’s functioning. Without this cycle, we wouldn’t have weather, climate, or anything else we take for granted about this planet. We certainly wouldn’t have fresh drinking water, either, so when discussing pollution issues, it’s important to understand this process in order to have a firm grasp on just how important groundwater really is. Here is a brief rundown of the cycle:

  • The cycle begins with the surface of the earth, including surface water. Water present in surface water and even in plants and dirt eventually evaporates into the air and becomes vapor.
  • When enough vapor enters the atmosphere, this process is called condensation. Condensation is how clouds are formed.
  • The more water that condenses into clouds, the more precipitation is present in those clouds. Precipitation is any type of water that can fall from a cloud, like rain, snow, or sleet. These different types of water fall back to the earth’s surface as part of regular weather patterns.
  • Some of this precipitation that falls back to earth trickles or flows into rivers, lakes, and other surface water sources. This water is known as runoff or stormwater.
  • Some of the precipitation ends up soaking back into the earth through the soil. When this happens, it’s called recharging. This is how groundwater forms.
  • Groundwater is stored in the rocks, sand, and soil below the planet’s surface. These substances are called aquifers. When water trickles through aquifers, it eventually reaches surface water sources once again. This is called discharge, and it’s how surface bodies of water stay filled.

As you can see, without groundwater to refill our surface water, we’d have no hydrologic system at all. This is the same cycle that’s been going on for millions of years, and it will continue as long as there is water on the planet’s surface.

How do We Access Groundwater?

There are a few different ways we access groundwater, depending on what we need it for. Each way we do this is usually achieved by digging, drilling, or boring into the surface of the Earth until the water table below has been sufficiently reached. From there, a more permanent fixture is usually build to help pull up water out of the ground where it is stored naturally.

surface water pollution

Wells are the most common method of groundwater access. Although there are many types of wells that differ slightly based on the individual needs of that particular location, there are three basic varieties of wells that are used regularly around the world. They include the following:

  • Bored wells – This type of well is usually dug at a very shallow depth, no more than one hundred feet. It usually isn’t finished beyond this point and remains simply a hole in the ground that water flows out of until it dries up. This is often a temporary solution for areas desperately in need of clean drinking water.
  • Sand wells – This type of well is always drilled because it is placed in a type of soil that doesn’t hold up sufficiently when it’s dug into. If the soil or sand can potentially collapse in on itself during drilling, then a sand well is necessary to ensure the water stays readily available and fresh.
  • Rock wells – This type of well is also usually drilled these days, and it can be dug up to 250 feet in depth. This kind of well can’t collapse in on itself because it’s drilled through rock that contains no actual soil.

Wells should never be dug by anyone who is not a professional. Only professional well installers know exactly how to work with the water table and aquifers in a given area in order to keep from disturbing or contaminating the surrounding groundwater. Although it’s illegal in many places to dig your own well in the United States, people still do it, and this is an unfortunate contributor to water quality issues throughout rural parts of the country.

What are the Common Pollutants of Groundwater?

Groundwater pollutants and contaminants come in many shapes and sizes. However, there are a few that remain the most common potential problems when it comes to this particular type of water pollution.

  • Human waste – In the United States, human waste usually finds its way into groundwater supplies through leaking pipes. Sewage systems that aren’t maintained, septic systems that aren’t installed properly, and even toilets that need to be repaired are all potential causes of waste in groundwater. When this happens, bacteria and illness spread quickly.
  • Salt – Salinity can be a big problem, especially when water is intended to be fresh. Road salts used to keep roads from freezing in cold weather often contribute to this type of groundwater pollution. As the frozen roads thaw out, they carry these salts with them as runoff. Eventually, this saltwater seeps into the soil and contaminates the groundwater below.
  • Hazardous waste – Any chemical or heavy metal that finds its way into groundwater through dumping or runoff is considered hazardous waste. These are very dangerous substances that can cause a lot of health problems in humans and animals both.
  • Pesticides – Pesticides are the leading cause of groundwater pollution in the United States. They percolate in soil in and around agricultural sites and eventually build up to dangerous and sometimes fatal levels in drinking water.

What are the Common Sources of Groundwater Pollution?

With so many different pollutants that might cause problems for groundwater, it’s a good idea to understand just where these problem substances come from. Many different industries and locations contribute to groundwater pollution, but some are much more commonly a problem than others.

ground and surface water pollution

  • Residential neighborhoods – These are communities where chemicals, detergents, human and animal waste, and road salts all add up to make groundwater very polluted. Households across the United States cause a lot of damage to the groundwater nearby without ever realizing it as they dump detergent and cleaning solution out in their yards or down their drains, use garbage disposals instead of composting heaps, and allow animal waste to sit in their yards without cleaning it up for a long while.
  • Agricultural sites – Since pesticides cause so much harm to groundwater, it stands to reason that agricultural sites are some of the worst places in terms of this type of pollution. Runoff from fertilizers and animal waste also lend a hand in seriously polluting groundwater surrounding farms. Polluted groundwater that contains pesticides can travel a long way before it finally reaches drinking water sources.
  • Construction sites – Construction sites create toxic runoff that seeps into the groundwater and causes pollution. When care isn’t taken to hold that runoff back and keep it from escaping the construction site, the water in the whole area is at risk.
  • Factories – Factories that use harsh chemical solvents and dangerous heavy metals in their operations often have runoff issues as well. They might also have problems with storage and transportation, both of which can lead to leaks and spills that further pollute groundwater.

Who is Most Affected by Groundwater Pollution?

Even though groundwater is such an important part of all of our lives, there are some places where groundwater pollution is more of a serious threat than others. If you live in a place like this, take extra precautions when using the water that comes out of your tap. Regularly check it for strange tastes, odors, or appearances, and if you have any reason to be concerned, send your water off for regular quality testing as well.

  • Residential neighborhoods If you live in a widely populated neighborhood, chances are good your groundwater is contaminated with a variety of different substances. Although most municipal water treatment facilities can get rid of the majority of these contaminants, some might be so severe that they become pollution problems.
  • Farms – Farms have a lot of trouble with groundwater pollution from pesticides and fertilizers. Many times, food that grows in this polluted soil is contaminated as well, and this can lead to serious problems like E. coli and listeria in crops.
  • Areas near landfills – People who live near landfills are more likely to experience groundwater pollution. When landfills sit filled with garbage, especially dangerous trash that should have been recycled or disposed of properly, toxic chemicals seep into the groundwater in large quantities.
  • Areas near fracking sites – Like landfills, fracking sites can cause more groundwater pollution in the general area. Although this is a major area of contention in the world today, there has been some scientific proof that fracking increases pollution in groundwater from heavy metals exposed during the process.

How is Groundwater Pollution Addressed?

There are many different things you can do in your own home to help cut back on groundwater contamination in your neighborhood. Although there is some legislation in the works to help protect groundwater sources, one of the most important ways this pollution is being addressed is by educating the public on safer water practices. Keep the following tips in mind to help improve the quality of groundwater where you live.

  • Don’t work on or wash your car at home. This can cause spills or runoff of oil, harsh chemical cleaners, antifreeze, power steering fluid, and dozens of other substances that can be very harmful to the environment. If these substances reach the soil in your yard, they can easily seep through the surface and reach the groundwater below.
  • Cut back on the number of harsh chemicals you use and store at home. Like oil and car washing chemicals, these can easily spill or end up washed into your yard, where they can reach groundwater in no time.
  • Never wash or flush garbage, pills, or chemicals down the drains. Doing this can allow these substances to leach through damaged pipes into the surrounding groundwater.
  • Don’t use pesticides in your garden. Pesticides are very harmful to the environment, and especially to groundwater. If you need something to keep the bugs at bay, opt for natural repellents only.
  • If you have a septic tank, have it maintained annually. Leaky septic tanks can cause waste to seep into the groundwater around your home.

In the United States, the Ground Water Rule was enacted in 2006 to help protect the quality of drinking water across the country. This Rule requires regular testing of drinking water quality and includes actions that can be taken to reprimand, repair, or even shut down locations where water quality comes in under par.

What is Surface Water?

Surface water is, basically, the opposite of groundwater. Any water you can see on the surface of the planet without digging is surface water. This can include rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, and the oceans. However, in this article, we’ll mostly be focusing on fresh surface water, since marine water pollution is a separate topic with different issues involved.

groundwater and surface water pollution

Surface water is an important part of the hydrologic cycle, just like groundwater is. Without surface water, there’d be nothing to evaporate into the atmosphere to form clouds. We’d have no weather and no rain. There would be no way to recharge the groundwater all over the planet, so we’d quickly run out of drinking water. Although we don’t directly use surface water for drinking in most instances, it still plays a vital role in the wellbeing of our planet and in our day to day lives.

Surface water is also the water we use for recreation. Many people like to visit lakes and rivers for swimming, boating, and catching fish. Camping trips wouldn’t be much fun without surface water, but unfortunately, they’re already under attack by more and more heavily polluted rivers and streams throughout the country.

What are the Common Pollutants of Surface Water?

While some of the common surface water pollutants may be similar to those you’d find in groundwater, others are quite different. Below, you’ll find out about the most common pollutants you can expect to encounter in surface water. Remember, though, that there are many others not listed here that simply aren’t as commonly found.

  • Human and animal waste – In some parts of the world, public defecation is still practiced. Although this isn’t true in the United States, it’s a major contributing factor in surface water pollution in some countries. Around the world, animals that urinate and defecate in surface water sources contribute to bacterial and parasitic pollutant buildup as well.
  • Chemicals – Factories that dump chemical wastewater into surface water sources have led to serious problems with this type of pollution over the years. In the past, this was a common practice. Today, it’s against the law in most places, but it still takes place illegally even so.
  • Nitrates Nitrates can be found in water from a few different sources, but the most common source is from fertilizers. When agricultural sites use fertilizer, runoff can carry nitrates from that fertilizer into nearby surface water sources every time it rains.
  • Nutrient Overload – In some instances, especially in areas where water is exposed to chemicals from pesticides or even from water treatment, nutrient overload can take place. This is when nutrients that are necessary for human life are present in quantities that are too high and become unsafe. This can also cause algal blooms to occur, which may be toxic as well. Algal blooms can cause widespread fish death in the surface water.
  • Nitrates – Nitrates can be found in water from a few different sources, but the most common

What are the Common Sources of Surface Water Pollution?

Surface water pollution comes from a few different places than groundwater pollution does. Even the types of pollution that these two kinds of water share come from different places in some situations, so it’s a good idea to keep your eyes open for all of the potential problem areas listed below.

  • Factories – In the past, factories have been allowed to dump wastewater directly into surface water sources such as rivers and lakes. The thinking long ago was that the rivers would just carry this pollution out to sea, but we know now that this isn’t true—and even if it is, it’s not safe either. Wastewater from factories often contains incredibly dangerous chemicals as well as heavy metals, all of which can cause a lot of damage to people, animals, and the environment. These are also places where leaks and spills are likely to occur, and may easily wash into nearby surface water sources when this happens.
  • Landfills – While landfills contribute mostly to groundwater pollution, they can cause trouble for surface water sources as well. Landfills that are close to lakes, streams, and rivers may create runoff that is filled with chemical pollutants. This runoff quickly reaches these surface water locations and builds up significantly in them over time. The more polluted the landfill is, the more polluted nearby water is sure to be. One of the leading causes of surface water pollution from landfill runoff is battery acid.
  • Unsanitary conditions – Especially in developing countries, unsanitary living conditions can cause a lot of pollution in surface water. When people and animals are allowed to defecate and urinate in the same surface water used for daily life and no filtration is in place, this causes widespread illness and disease. There are some places in the United States where unsanitary conditions lead to surface water pollution as well.

Who is Most Affected by Surface Water Pollution?

People around the world are affected by surface water pollution, but not in the ways you might think. Groundwater supplies most of our drinking water around the world, but surface water pollution causes issues in many other ways. Below are just a few of the areas that are most affected by pollution of surface water sources worldwide.

water pollution

  • People in developing countries. Many developing countries still rely heavily on surface water for drinking, cleaning, cooking, and washing. This is largely because these countries don’t have access to the kind of technology needed to drill clean, safe wells or treat their drinking water. Unfortunately, using untreated surface water for every aspect of daily life is a recipe for disaster, and this is how disease outbreaks occur and spread.
  • People who rely on shallow wells. Even in the United States, there are people who rely on shallow wells to get their drinking water. This is especially true in rural communities where the population isn’t large enough to warrant a municipal water system. These wells are susceptible to the same problems as surface water, and usually, when nearby surface water sources become polluted, these wells do too.
  • The fishing industry. This is quite possibly the biggest area of concern in terms of surface water pollution. The fishing industry is affected by both fresh and saltwater pollution, and it’s suffering from both. When water becomes polluted, that can lead to widespread fish death over a relatively short period of time. Polluted water can also contaminate the fish that swim in it, so even if they don’t die from the pollution, they may end up making people who eat them sick. Both of these potential outcomes can seriously hurt the business that people in the fishing industry rely on for their livelihoods.
  • People who live downstream of factories. When surface water contamination happens from wastewater dumping or chemical spills at factories, the people downstream are always affected first and worst. They often receive the polluted water before it’s ever handled by treatment facilities.

How is Surface Water Pollution Addressed?

As with groundwater pollution, cleanup efforts and education are some of the best ways surface water pollution is regularly addressed. Keep in mind a few ways you can help prevent surface water pollution by making some small changes in your daily life. Don’t forget to share these tips with your friends and family to help cut back even more on this type of pollution in your area.

  • Always recycle batteries, printer ink, and other chemicals. These are some of the biggest problems in landfills, especially when it comes to runoff. They are made with dangerous components that can seriously contaminate surface water if they reach it. Call your local trash service to find out where to safely dispose of these products.
  • Don’t throw electronics in the local landfill. Electronics belong in a specific place, and large landfills usually have a separate section for them. Smaller landfills may not so be sure to ask where to dispose of them properly to keep their chemical components out of landfills.
  • Never throw trash in the water. This might go without saying, but littering even once is contributing to water pollution!
  • Turn off your water when you aren’t using it. One major cause of surface water pollution is depletion and overuse. You can help combat this problem by shutting off the tap while you’re brushing your teeth and only using it to rinse, turning off the water while you soap up in the shower, and remembering to turn off the faucet in between dishes when washing.
  • Only run your washing machine and dishwasher when they’re full. Not only does this make your machines work better, but it also ensures you won’t be using too much water or washing multiple times in a week. This is another great way to help conserve water and keep surface sources from becoming polluted. (While you’re at it, try switching to all-natural detergents and dish soap, too!)

In the United States, the Clean Water Act focuses significantly on cleaning up and protecting surface water sources across the country. This Act makes it illegal to dump harmful contaminants and toxic chemicals into the surface water, and it allows for some enforcement of these rules as well. Unfortunately, a lot of factories and companies still don’t follow the law very strictly, and this is something that needs to change.


So, have you learned a lot about surface and groundwater pollution? Are you able to tell the difference between the two now? Can you recognize them taking place when you see them? Now that you’ve read through this article, you should be better able to notice water pollution and determine which type it is. From there, it’s only natural that you will want to start making changes in your own life to help fight back against these issues.

Whether you’re dealing with surface water or groundwater pollution where you live, there are ways you can help. The first step toward cleaning up both types of water is to start using healthier water practices in your home. If you have surface water issues in your area, use less water and help conserve the remaining surface sources. If your pollution problem is coming from groundwater, try not to use as many harsh chemicals and cleaners in your home, and never pour these substances into your yard or down your drain.

Both types of water pollution are very bad, and determining which is worse for you can be difficult. Different parts of the world have different pollution issues, but remember that water pollution is a problem that we all face in some way. The more we work together to clean up our water sources, the better off we’ll all be.


5 Tips to Understand the Difference Between Groundwater and Surface Water Pollution

  1. Groundwater pollution occurs when pollutants are released into the soil, which then seeps into the groundwater. Surface water pollution occurs when pollutants are directly released into a body of water.
  2. Groundwater pollution is more difficult to detect than surface water pollution because it is not visible from the surface. Surface water pollution can be seen with the naked eye.
  3. Groundwater pollution can have long-term effects on drinking water supplies, while surface water pollution can cause immediate harm to aquatic life.
  4. Groundwater contamination can take years or even decades to clean up, while surface water contamination can be cleaned up much faster.
  5. Surface water pollution is easier to control than groundwater pollution because it is easier to monitor and regulate activities that occur near bodies of water.

ALSO: Consider using natural solutions such as wetlands and vegetation buffers to help reduce both groundwater and surface water pollution!</p

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About The Author

Carolyn Rodriguez
Research Writer
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Carolyn Rodriguez works at AllAboutWaterFilters as a content research writer, specializing in content resources regarding water pollution, contamination, and treatment. She has previously worked as an editing assistant, content production assistant, research assistant, and ghost writer for a range of websites, with a particular concentration on water pollution. She is currently writing regularly for AllAboutWaterFilters as well as her own water safety essays across the web.

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