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Water: Educator Resources

How do we measure the quality of our waters?

Doctors use instruments like thermometers and stethoscopes to check on your health. Scientists use instruments like Secchi (sek’-ee) disks, probes, nets, gauges, and meters to determine how healthy the water is. They take measurements of the physical and chemical condition of the water and the health of the critters that live in it.

Scientists collect water in lots of different ways. They use boats to go out in the middle of lakes, they wade into streams wearing rubber boots that go up to their chests, they drop buckets over the sides of bridges—they’ll do almost anything to get a sample.

Water samples aren’t the only things scientists collect. They take photographs from airplanes and even satellites. They use their eyes to observe what’s happening along streams, lakes, and bays to get an overall sense of the health of the water. They also collect fish, plants, dirt, and aquatic bugs, and study what’s happening on the land that’s next to the water.

What do scientists measure?

**** The words highlighted in bold are defined in the glossary.

Temperature - When you don’t feel well, chances are the first thing someone does is take your temperature. Scientists measure water temperature for several reasons. First, it determines the kinds of animals that can survive in a stream. If the temperature gets too hot or too cold for some organisms, they die. Temperature also can affect the chemistry of the water. For example, warm water holds less oxygen than cold water. A healthy cluster of trees and vegetation next to a stream or river helps keep temperatures cool for trout and other fish.

Dissolved oxygen probe

Dissolved oxygen - Scientists measure dissolved oxygen, or DO (pronounced dee-oh). This tells them how much oxygen is available in the water for fish and other aquatic organisms to breathe. Healthy waters generally have high levels of DO (some areas, like swamps, naturally have low levels of DO). Just like human beings, aquatic life needs oxygen to survive. Several factors can affect how much DO is in the water. These include temperature, the amount and speed of flowing water, the plants and algae that produce oxygen during the day and take it back in at night, pollution in the water, and the composition of the stream bottom. (Gravelly or rocky bottoms stir up the water more than muddy ones do, creating bubbles that put more oxygen into the water.)

pH - Scientists measure pH to determine the concentration of hydrogen in the water (The p stands for “potential of” and the H is hydrogen.) pH ranges from 0 (very acidic) to 14 (very basic), with 7 being neutral. Most waters range from 6.5 to 8.5. Changes in pH can affect how chemicals dissolve in the water and whether organisms are affected by them. High acidity can be deadly to fish and other aquatic organisms.

Aren't nutrients good for you?
Just like anything in life, moderation is the key (consider television). Although every living thing needs nutrients to grow, too many nutrients in the water cause algae to grow out of control. At night, they suck all of the oxygen out of the water so the fish and other organisms can't breathe. Also, when algae die, they are decomposed by oxygen-breathing bacteria that pull DO out of the water.

Nutrients - Just as nutrients are critical for you to grow (check out what’s inside a box of cereal—essential nutrients), they are critical to plants and animals. The two major nutrients scientists measure are nitrogen and phosphorus. The presence of too many nutrients can hurt aquatic organisms by causing lots of algae to grow in the water. Nutrients can also affect pH, water clarity and temperature, and cause water to smell and look bad.

Toxic Substances - Scientists also test for many harmful (toxic) things like metal, pesticides, and oil. For example, scientists are finding mercury in certain types of fish, especially in lakes and estuaries. Mercury comes from mining, natural sources and air pollution from power plants and incinerators. People are warned not to fish if mercury or other harmful substances are a problem in a stream, lake or bay.

Turbidity - Scientists measure the clarity of water to determine how many particulates (little bitty particles of stuff) are floating around. If you’re sitting on a dock in a pond on a warm summer day, you might be able to see to the bottom. That’s low turbidity. On the other hand, if you visit the dock after a rainstorm when all the muck has been stirred up, you won’t be able to see the bottom; that’s high turbidity. Scientists use turbidity measurements to calculate the inputs from erosion and nutrients.

Bacteria - Scientists sample for certain types of bacteria that are found only in the intestinal tract of animals and humans. These bacteria, called fecal coliforms, are not necessarily harmful, but they usually hang out with some bad characters like viruses and pathogens, which can make you sick. The major sources of fecal coliforms are failing septic systems, wastewater treatment plant discharges, and animal waste (which covers a big range from Pup's droppings to cow manure).

Visual surveys - Not all measurements are chemical or physical. Scientists take measurements of the landscape surrounding a stream to determine things like the amount of trees and shrubs along a stream, the amount of shade that is created by trees overhanging the stream, and woody debris (sticks and leaves) in the stream. The more vegetation, tree cover, and woody debris, the more habitat is created for wildlife and fish. Vegetation can even trap pollutants before they enter the stream. Tree cover also helps regulate water temperature, which is important to trout and other fish that need cold water to survive.

Biological sampling - Scientists determine the health of waters by taking samples of fish, plants and smaller organisms called macroinvertebrates (mack-row-in-ver-tuh-bretts). Macroinvertebrates include things like snails, worms, fly larvae, and crayfish ("crawdads"). You find them under rocks and tree roots in the water. These critters tell a story about the health of the stream. Some of them love to live in water that's dirty, so if scientists find a lot of those in a sample, they know there's a problem. Other organisms can survive only in water that's very clean, so finding those means the water is probably healthy.

Riffle Beetle - Found in clean water

Raise your hand if you live in a watershed.

Is your hand up? Good. Everyone lives in a watershed. A watershed is simply an area of land that drains the rainwater (or snow) into one location such as a stream, lake, or wetland. This means that the runoff from streets, fields, and lawns will eventually drain into those streams, lakes, or wetlands. Cup your hands as if you are going to drink water from a faucet. Your thumbs and fore fingers are like the ridges of a watershed and your palms are like the waterbody that catches the rainwater. Watersheds can vary in size and shape from a couple of square miles to hundreds of thousands of miles. We all live, work, and play in watersheds, and what we do affects everything and everyone else in the watershed.


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