Membrane filtration (microfiltration and ultrafiltration) has become an accepted process for drinking water treatment, but membrane fouling remains a significant problem. The objective of this study was to systematically investigate the mechanisms and components in natural waters that contribute to fouling. Natural waters from five sources were filtered in a benchtop filtration system. A sequential filtration process was used in most experiments. The first filtration steps removed specific components from the water, and the latter filtration steps investigated membrane fouling by the remaining components. Particulate matter (larger than 0.45 microm) was relatively unimportant in fouling as compared to dissolved matter. Very small colloids, ranging from about 3-20 nm in diameter, appeared to be important membrane foulants based on this experimental protocol. The colloidal foulants included both inorganic and organic matter, but the greatest fraction of material was organic. When the colloidal fraction of material was removed, the remaining dissolved organic matter (DOM), which was smaller than about 3 nm and included about 85-90% of the total DOM, caused very little fouling. Thus, although other studies have identified DOM as a major foulant during filtration of natural waters, this work shows that a small fraction of DOM may be responsible for fouling. Adsorption was demonstrated to be an important mechanism for fouling by colloids.