Environmental regulations in the United States lead to improvements in untreated stormwater quality over four decades

Water Res. 2023 Sep 1:243:120386. doi: 10.1016/j.watres.2023.120386. Epub 2023 Jul 18.


Identifying sources of pollutants in watersheds is critical to accurately predicting stormwater quality. Many existing software used to model stormwater quality rely on decades-old data sets which may not represent current runoff quality in the United States. Because of environmental regulations promulgated at the federal level over previous decades, there is a need to understand long-term trends (and potential shifts) in runoff quality to better parameterize models. Pollutant event mean concentrations (EMCs) from the National Stormwater Quality Database (NSQD) were combined with those from recent sources to understand if untreated stormwater quality has changed over the past 40 years. A significant decreasing monotonic trend (i.e., continually decreasing in a nonuniform fashion) was observed for total suspended solids (TSS), total phosphorus (TP), total Kjeldahl nitrogen (TKN), total copper (Cu), total lead (Pb), and total zinc (Zn) in the resultant database, suggesting that runoff quality has become less polluted with time. Median EMCs decreased from 99.2 to 42 mg/L, 0.34 to 0.26 mg/L, 1.27 to 1.03 mg/L, 40 to 6.8 µg/L, 110 to 3.7 µg/L, and 375 to 53.3 µg/L for TSS, TP, TN, Cu, Pb, and Zn, respectively, from the 1980s to the 2010s. These significant reductions often aligned temporally with advancements in clean manufacturing, amendments of the Clean Air Act, and other source control efforts which impact pollutant bioavailability and atmospheric deposition. Results suggest environmental regulations not specifically targeting stormwater management have had a positive impact on stormwater quality and that temporal fluctuations should be considered in modeling.

Keywords: Event mean concentration; Monotonic trend; National stormwater quality database; Step trend; Stormwater management; Water quality.

MeSH terms

  • Environmental Monitoring / methods
  • Environmental Pollutants*
  • Lead
  • Phosphorus
  • Rain
  • United States
  • Water Movements
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical* / analysis
  • Zinc / analysis


  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Lead
  • Zinc
  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Phosphorus