A Primer on Water Quality

Transcript

1 A Primer on Water Quality How is water quality measured? What is in the water? Some aspects of water quality can Is it safe for drinking? Can fi sh be determined right in the stream and other aquatic life thrive in or at the well. These include tem- streams and lakes that are affected perature, acidity (pH), dissolved by human activities? What is the oxygen, and electrical conduc- water quality? To answer these tance (an indirect indicator of dis- questions, it is helpful to under- solved minerals in the water). stand what “water quality” means, Analyses of individual chemicals how it is determined, and the nat- generally are done at a laboratory. ural processes and human activi- ties that affect water quality. may dissolve minerals in rocks Why do we have water-quality and soil, percolate through organic standards and guidelines? material such as roots and leaves, Standards and guidelines are and react with algae, bacteria, established to protect water for and other microscopic organisms. designated uses such as drinking, recreation, agricultural irrigation, or protection and maintenance of aquatic life. Standards for drinking-water quality ensure that public drinking-water supplies are as safe as possible. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the States are responsible for establishing the What do we mean by “water standards for constituents in water quality”? that have been shown to pose a Water quality can be thought of risk to human health. Other stan- as a measure of the suitability of dards protect aquatic life, includ- water for a particular use based sh, and fi sh-eating wildlife ing fi on selected physical, chemical, such as birds. and biological characteristics. To determine water quality, scientists How do natural processes affect fi rst measure and analy ze char- water quality? acteristics of the water such Natural water quality varies from as temperature, dissolved mineral Water may also carry plant debris place to place, with the seasons, content, and number of bacteria. and sand, silt, and clay to rivers with climate, and with the types Selected characteristics are then and streams making the water of soils and rocks through which compared to numeric standards appear . When turbid or ” muddy “ water moves. When water from and guidelines to decide if the water evaporates from lakes and rain or snow moves over the land water is suitable for a particular streams, dissolved minerals are and through the ground, the water use. more concentrated in the water FS-027-01 U.S. Department of the Interior Printed on recycled paper March 2001 U.S. Geological Survey

2 mixtures of chemicals typically that remains. Each of these natural easily in rainwater or snowmelt are found in water, but health- processes changes the water qual- runoff. Excess nutrients carried to based standards and guidelines streams and lakes encourage abun- ity and potentially the water use. have not been established for dant growth of algae, which leads chemical mixtures. What is naturally in the water? to low oxygen in the water and the fi sh kills. possibility of The most common dissolved sub- What about bacteria, viruses, and stances in water are minerals or other pathogens in water? salts that, as a group, are referred The quality of water for drinking . Dissolved dissolved solids to as cannot be assured by chemical solids include common constit- analyses alone. The presence of uents such as calcium, sodium, bacteria in water, which are nor- bicarbonate, and chloride; plant mally found in the intestinal tracts such as nitrogen and nutrients of humans and animals, signal that phosphorus; and trace elements disease-causing pathogens may be such as selenium, chromium, and present. Giardia and cryptosporid- arsenic. ium are pathogens that have been In general, the common con- found occasionally in public-water stituents are not considered harm- supplies and have caused illness ful to human health, although in a large number of people in some constituents can affect the Chemicals such as pharmaceu- a few locations. Pathogens can taste, smell, or clarity of water. tical drugs, dry-cleaning solvents, enter our water from leaking septic Plant nutrients and trace elements and gasoline that are used in tanks, wastewater-treatment dis- in water can be harmful to human urban and industrial activities have charge, and animal wastes. health and aquatic life if they been found in streams and ground exceed standards or guidelines. water. After decades of use, pes- How can I fi nd out more about my Dissolved gases such as ticides are now widespread in water quality? oxygen and radon are common in streams and ground water, though Contact your local water supplier natural waters. Adequate oxygen they rarely exceed the existing and ask for information on the levels in water are a necessity for standards and guidelines estab- water quality in your area. The fi sh and other aquatic life. Radon lished to protect human health. USEPA requires public-water sup- gas can be a threat to human Some pesticides have not been pliers to provide water-quality data health when it exceeds drinking- used for 20 to 30 years, but to the public on an annual basis water standards. fi they are still detected in sh and in an understandable format. State streambed sediment at levels that agencies that deal with health, How do human activities affect pose a potential risk to human environmental quality, or water water quality? health, aquatic life, and fi sh-eating resources also can provide infor- wildlife. Urban and industrial development, mation on the quality of your farming, mining, combustion of water. Additional resources can be fossil fuels, stream-channel alter- found on the Internet at: ation, animal-feeding operations, http://water.usgs.gov/nawqa and other human activities can http://www.epa.gov/safewater change the quality of natural waters. As an example of the –Gail E. Cordy effects of human activities on water quality, consider nitrogen There are so many chemicals and phosphorus fertilizers that are in use today that determining the applied to crops and lawns. These risk to human health and aquatic plant nutrients can be dissolved life is a complex task. In addition,

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