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The answer to this is not simple. On one hand, it can be said that the quality of water in rural areas is better because these areas are removed from industrial activities and urban runoff, which may result in the degradation of the quality of river water, lake water, or groundwater. There are, however, many exceptions. In areas with intensive agricultural activity, mining, and logging, the impacts on water quality can be severe on rural waters.

EarthConcerns about the potential impact of farm production on the quality of the Nation’s rural drinking and recreational water resources have risen over the past 10 years. Agricultural sources are now the largest single contributor to the Nation’s surface water quality problem, and there is evidence that some ground water supplies may be vulnerable to leaching chemicals in agricultural areas. This report explores the use of nonmarket valuation methods, such as travel cost to a recreational lake, to estimate the benefits of improving or protecting rural water quality from agricultural sources of pollution. Food and fiber production can impair surface and ground water resources. Fertilizers and pesticides used to grow crops may leach through soils and contaminate ground water supplies. Dissolved chemicals in drinking water may then pose a human health risk. Runoff of chemicals from sediment and cropland, as well as soil erosion, may impair the quality of streams, lakes, rivers, and wetlands.

Most early efforts to protect water quality were directed at municipal and industrial sources of pollution, where a single pollutant source could be identified (point-source pollution). The cumulative effect of more than 20 years of investment in such point-source pollution control is that non point-source pollution, particularly from agricultural sources, has become the largest single remaining water-quality problem in the Nation. Both public and private costs are relevant in resolving conflicts between agriculture and water quality. When making production decisions, farmers balance their expected production costs with expected returns from crops produced. However, farmers’ decisions may have unintended long-range effects. Economic losses from impaired water quality reflect, in part, how important the resources are to society. One case study is used to illustrate the relationship between agricultural production and the costs of impaired surface water quality. Changes in farm production practices may lead to changes in the quality of nearby lakes, affecting recreation activities.

While rural water has it's challenges coming largely from intensive agricultural demands, urban water faces it's challenges as well. The largest challenge? It's called storm water, or urban runoff. Urban runoff pollutants are many and varied depending on the land uses and pollutant sources present in an urban area. Typically loadings of urban pollutants are greatest from industrial and commercial areas, roads and freeways, and higher density residential areas. Although sources of specific pollutants may vary widely in urban areas, motor vehicles are recognized to be a major source of pollutants, contributing oils, greases, hydrocarbons, and toxic metals. The more cars and trucks we have, and the more streets and parking lots we build to accommodate these vehicles, the greater the concentration of urban runoff pollutants and the more money we have to spend managing these pollutants. In addition to the NURP studies (U.S. EPA, 1983), several other publications provide excellent reviews of urban stormwater quality (Make peace et al., 1995; Pitt et al., 1995).

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