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Water Quality

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Looking at water, you might think that it's the most simple thing around. Pure water is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. But it's not at all simple and plain and it is vital for all life on Earth. Where there is water there is life, and where water is scarce, life has to struggle or just "throw in the towel."

So what is it about water that makes it so important to us? And what is it about water that makes it water? This section of Water Science for Schools explores the physical and chemical properties of water and why water is so critical to living things.

Water-basics topics available

Water Properties

Water's Chemical Properties

You probably know water's chemical description is H2O. As the diagram to the left shows, that is one atom of oxygen bound to two atoms of hydrogen. The hydrogen atoms are "attached" to one side of the oxygen atom, resulting in a water molecule having a positive charge on the side where the hydrogen atoms are and a negative charge on the other side, where the oxygen atom is. Since opposite electrical charges attract, water molecules tend to attract each other, making water kind of "sticky." As the right-side diagram shows, the side with the hydrogen atoms (positive charge) attracts the oxygen side (negative charge) of a different water molecule. (If the water molecule here looks familiar, remember that everyone's favorite mouse is mostly water, too). All these water molecules attracting each other mean they tend to clump together. This is why water drops are, in fact, drops! If it wasn't for some of Earth's forces, such as gravity, a drop of water would be ball shaped -- a perfect sphere. Even if it doesn't form a perfect sphere on Earth, we should be happy water is sticky.

  • Water is called the "universal solvent" because it dissolves more substances than any other liquid. This means that wherever water goes, either through the ground or through our bodies, it takes along valuable chemicals, minerals, and nutrients.
  • Pure water has a neutral pH of 7, which is neither acidic nor basic.

Water's Physical Properties

  • Water is unique in that it is the only natural substance that is found in all three states -- liquid, solid (ice), and gas (steam) -- at the temperatures normally found on Earth. Earth's water is constantly interacting, changing, and in movement.
  • Water freezes at 32o Fahrenheit (F) and boils at 212o F (at sea level, but 186.4° at 14,000 feet). In fact, water's freezing and boiling points are the baseline with which temperature is measured: 0o on the Celsius scale is water's freezing point, and 100o is water's boiling point. Water is unusual in that the solid form, ice, is less dense than the liquid form, which is why ice floats.
  • Water has a high specific heat index. This means that water can absorb a lot of heat before it begins to get hot. This is why water is valuable to industries and in your car's radiator as a coolant. The high specific heat index of water also helps regulate the rate at which air changes temperature, which is why the temperature change between seasons is gradual rather than sudden, especially near the oceans.
  • Water has a very high surface tension. In other words, water is sticky and elastic, and tends to clump together in drops rather than spread out in a thin film. Surface tension is responsible for capillary action, which allows water (and its dissolved substances) to move through the roots of plants and through the tiny blood vessels in our bodies.

The water in you

Think of what you need to survive, really just survive. Food? Water? Air? MTV? Naturally, I'm going to concentrate on water here. Water is of major importance to all living things; in some organisms, up to 90% of their body weight comes from water. Up to 60% of the human body is water, the brain is composed of 70% water, and the lungs are nearly 90% water. Lean muscle tissue contains about 75% water by weight, as is the brain; body fat contains 10% water and bone has 22% water. About 83% of our blood is water, which helps digest our food, transport waste, and control body temperature. Each day humans must replace 2.4 litres of water, some through drinking and the rest taken by the body from the foods eaten.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Utz, Neuroscience, pediatrics, Allegheny University, different people have different percentages of their bodies made up of water. Babies have the most, being born at about 78%. By one year of age, that amount drops to about 65%. In adult men, about 60% of their bodies are water. However, fat tissue does not have as much water as lean tissue. In adult women, fat makes up more of the body than men, so they have about 55% of their bodies made of water. Fat men also have less water (as a percentage) than thin men. Thus:

  • Babies and kids have more water (as a percentage) than adults.
  • Women have less water than men (as a percentage).
  • Fat people have less water than thin people (as a percentage).

There just wouldn't be any you, me, or Fido the dog without the existence of an ample liquid water supply on Earth. The unique qualities andproperties of water are what make it so important and basic to life. The cells in our bodies are full of water. The excellent ability of water to dissolve so many substances allows our cells to use valuable nutrients, minerals, and chemicals in biological processes.

Water's "stickiness" (from surface tension) plays a part in our body's ability to transport these materials all through ourselves. The carbohydrates and proteins that our bodies use as food are metabolized and transported by water in the bloodstream. No less important is the ability of water to transport waste material out of our bodies.

Water properties: Dissolved oxygen

Photograph of a hydrologist standing in a small creek measuring dissolved oxygen.You can't tell by looking at water that there is oxygen in it (unless you remember that chemical makeup of a water molecule is hydrogen and oxygen). But, if you look at a closed bottle of a soft drink, you don't see the carbon dioxide dissolved in that - until you shake it up and open the top. The oxygen dissolved in lakes, rivers, and oceans is crucial for the organisms and creatures living in it. As the amount of dissolved oxygen drops below normal levels in water bodies, the water quality is harmed and creatures begin to die off. Indeed, a water body can "die", a process called eutrophication.

Although water molecules contain an oxygen atom, this oxygen is not what is needed by aquatic organisms living in natural waters. A small amount of oxygen, up to about ten molecules of oxygen per million of water, is actually dissolved in water. Oxygen enters a stream mainly from the atmosphere and, in areas where ground-water discharge into streams is a large portion of streamflow, from ground-water discharge. This dissolved oxygen is breathed by fish and zooplankton and is needed by them to survive.

Dissolved oxygen and water quality

Rapidly moving water, such as in a mountain stream or large river, tends to contain a lot of dissolved oxygen, wheras stagnant water contains less. Bacteria in water can consume oxygen as organic matter decays. Thus, excess organic material in lakes and rivers can cause eutrophic conditions, which is an oxygen-deficient situation that can cause a water body "to die." Aquatic life can have a hard time in stagnant water that has a lot of rotting, organic material in it, especially in summer (the concentration of dissolved oxygen is inversely related to water temperature), when dissolved-oxygen levels are at a seasonal low. Water near the surface of the lake– the epilimnion– is too warm for them, while water near the bottom–the hypolimnion– has too little oxygen. Conditions may become especially serious during a spate of hot, calm weather, resulting in the loss of many fish. You may have heard about summertime fish kills in local lakes that likely result from this problem. 

Dissolved oxygen, temperature, and aquatic life

Chart showing the inverse relation between temperature and dissolved oxygen.As this chart shows, the concentration of dissolved oxygen in surface water is controlled by temperature and has both a seasonal and a daily cycle. Cold water can hold more dissolved oxygen than warm water. In winter and early spring, when the water temperature is low, the dissolvedoxygen concentration is high. In summer and fall, when the water temperature is high, the dissolved-oxygen concentration is low.

Dissolved oxygen in surface water is used by all forms of aquatic life; therefore, this constituent typically is measured to assess the "health" of lakes and streams. Oxygen enters a stream from the atmosphere and from ground-water discharge. The contribution of oxygen from ground-water discharge is significant, however, only in areas where ground water is a large component of streamflow, such as in areas of glacial deposits. Photosynthesis is the primary process affecting the dissolved-oxygen/temperature relation; water clarity and strength and duration of sunlight, in turn, affect the rate of photosynthesis. Dissolved-oxygen concentrations fluctuate with water temperature seasonally as well as diurnally (daily).

Measuring dissolved oxygen

Photograph of an electronic dissolved-oxygen meter.

Field and lab meters to measure dissolved oxygen have been around for a long time. As this picture shows, modern meters are smallI and highly electronic. They still use a probe, which is located at the end of the cable. Dissolved oxygen is dependent on temperature (an inverse relation), so the meter must be calibrated properly before each use.


Water temperature

Picture of a power plant, which must cool its return water before sending it back into streams.Water temperature is not only important to swimmers and fisherman, but also to industries and even fish and algae. A lot of water is used for cooling purposes in power plants that generate electricity. They need cool water to start with, and they generally release warmer water back to the environment. The temperature of the released water can affect downstream habitats. Temperature also can affect the ability of water to hold oxygen as well as the ability of organisms to resist certain pollutants.


pH

pH is a measure of how acidic/basic water is. The range goes from 0 - 14, with 7 being neutral. pHs of less than 7 indicate acidity, whereas a pH of greater than 7 indicates a base. pH is really a measure of the relative amount of free hydrogen and hydroxyl ions in the water. Water that has more free hydrogen ions is acidic, whereas water that has more free hydroxyl ions is basic. Since pH can be affected by chemicals in the water, pH is an important indicator of water that is changing chemically. pH is reported in "logarithmic units," like the Richter scale, which measures earthquakes. Each number represents a 10-fold change in the acidity/basicness of the water. Water with a pH of 5 is ten times more acidic than water having a pH of six.

Pollution can change a water's pH, which in turn can harm animals and plants living in the water. For instance, water coming out of an abandoned coal mine can have a pH of 2, which is very acidic and would definitely affect any fish crazy enough to try to live in it! By using the logarithm scale, this mine-drainage water would be 100,000 times more acidic than neutral water -- so stay out of abandoned mines.

Specific conductance

Photo of a meter to measure specific conductance in the field or in the lab.Specific conductance is a measure of the ability of water to conduct an electrical current. It is highly dependent on the amount of dissolved solids (such as salt) in the water. Pure water, such as distilled water, will have a very low specific conductance, and sea water will have a high specific conductance. Rainwater often dissolves airborne gasses and airborne dust while it is in the air, and thus often has a higher specific conductance than distilled water. Specific conductance is an important water-quality measurement because it gives a good idea of the amount of dissolved material in the water.

High specific conductance indicates high dissolved-solids concentration; dissolved solids can affect the suitability of water for domestic, industrial, and agricultural uses. At higher levels, drinking water may have an unpleasant taste or odor or may even cause gastrointestinal distress. Additionally, high dissolved-solids concentration can cause deterioration of plumbing fixtures and appliances. Relatively expensive water-treatment processes, such as reverse osmosis, are needed to remove excessive dissolved solids from water.

Chart showing that specific conductance generally is lowest in May to August, when streamflow generally is largest, and increases with decreasing streamflow in the fall, winter, and spring.Agriculture also can be adversely affected by high-specific-conductance water, as crops cannot survive if the water they use is too saline, for instance. Agriculture can also be the cause of increases in the specific conductance of local waters. When water is used for irrigation, part of the water evaporates or is consumed by plants, concentrating the original amount of dissolved solids in less water; thus, the dissolved-solids concentration and the specific conductance in the remaining water is increased. The remaining higher specific-conductance water reenters the river as irrigation-return flow. In a USGS study in Colorado, USA, specific conductance was found to vary during the year as a result of the temporal variability of streamflow. As this chart shows, specific conductance generally was lowest in the Arkansas RIver near Avondale, Colorado, in May to August, when streamflow generally was largest, and increased with decreasing streamflow in the fall, winter, and spring.

Often in school, students do an experiment where they connect a battery to a light bulb and run two wires from the battery into a beaker of water. When the wires are put into a beaker of distilled water, the light will not light. But, the bulb does light up when the beaker contains salt water (saline). In the saline water, the salt has dissolved, releasing free electrons, and the water will conduct an electrical current.


Turbidity

Picture of three glass beakers with water with turbidities of 10, 200, and 1500.Turbidity is the amount of particulate matter that is suspended in water. Turbidity measures the scattering effect that suspended solids have on light: the higher the intensity of scattered light, the higher the turbidity. Material that causes water to be turbid include:

  • clay
  • silt
  • finely divided organic and inorganic matter
  • soluble colored organic compounds
  • plankton
  • microscopic organisms

Picture showing highly turbid water from a tributary (where construction was probably taking place) flowing into the less turbid water of the Chattahoochee RiverTurbidity makes the water cloudy or opaque. The picture to the left shows highly turbid water from a tributary (where construction was probably taking place) flowing into the less turbid water of the Chattahoochee River in Georgia. Turbidity is measured by shining a light through the water and is reported in nephelometric turbidity units (NTU). During periods of low flow (base flow), many rivers are a clear green color, and turbidities are low, usually less than 10 NTU. During a rainstorm, particles from the surrounding land are washed into the river making the water a muddy brown color, indicating water that has higher turbidity values. Also, during high flows, water velocities are faster and water volumes are higher, which can more easily stir up and suspend material from the stream bed, causing higher turbidities.

Picture of a turbidity meter.Turbidity can be measured in the laboratory and also on-site in the river. A handheld turbidity meter (left-side picture) measures turbidity of a water sample. The meter is calibrated using standard samples from the meter manufacturer. The picture with the three glass vials shows turbidity standards of 5, 50, and 500 NTUs. Once the meter is calibrated to correctly read these standards, the turbidity of a water sample can be taken.

Picture of a turbidity sonde.Closeup picutre of the turbidity, conductivity, and temperature sensors on the turbidity sonde.State-of-the-art turbidity meters (left-side picture) are beginning to be installed in rivers to provide an instantaneous turbidity reading. The right-side picture shows a closeup of the meter. The large tube is the turbidity sensor; it reads turbidity in the river by shining a light into the water and reading how much light is reflected back to the sensor. The smaller tube contains a conductivity sensor to measure electrical conductance of the water, which is strongly influenced by dissolved solids (the two holes) and a temperature gauge (the metal rod).




Hardness

The amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in water determines its "hardness." Water hardness varies throughout the United States. If you live in an area where the water is "soft," then you may never have even heard of water hardness. But, if you live in Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, or Indiana, where the water is relatively hard, you may notice that it is difficult to get a lather up when washing your hands or clothes. And, industries in your area might have to spend money to soften their water, as hard water can damage equipment. Hard water can even shorten the life of fabrics and clothes! Does this mean that students who live in areas with hard water keep up with the latest fashions since their clothes wear out faster?


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