Phosphates are chemical compounds containing phosphorus. Phosphorus is a non-metallic element which is necessary for life and is found in rock as inorganic phosphates. As water runs over and through rocks it carries off small amounts of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and phosphates. Inorganic phosphates are a plant nutrient and are taken in by plants with water and incorporated into organic phosphate compounds. Animals obtain their essential phosphorus from phosphates in water and plant material. Natural waters have a phosphorus concentration of approximately 0.02 parts per million (ppm) which is a limiting factor for plant growth. On the other hand, large concentrations of this nutrient can accelerate plant growth.
Phosphates are added to surface waters by a variety of means. Humans add phosphates to water through industrial and agricultural wastes. Fertilizers contain high levels of phosphates and will enter the water by means of runoff and soil erosion. In areas where land and vegetation have been disturbed, soil erosion will increase. This will lead to even more phosphates being washed out of the soil and into the water. Phosphates can also come from the excrement of animals living in or near the water.