Understanding Your Water Quality


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.

Specific Conductance:

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.

Probably in school you’ve done the experiment where you hook up 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.

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.


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: finely divided organic and inorganic matter, soluble colored organic compounds, plankton, microscopic organisms, clay and silt.

Dissolved Oxygen:

Although water molecules contain an oxygen atom, this oxygen is not what is needed by aquatic organisms living in our natural waters. A small amount of oxygen, up to about ten molecules of oxygen per million of water, is actually dissolved in water. This dissolved oxygen is breathed by fish and zooplankton and is needed by them to survive.

Rapidly moving water, such as in a mountain stream or large river, tends to contain a lot of dissolved oxygen, while stagnant water contains little. Bacteria in water can consume oxygen as organic matter decays. Thus, excess organic material in our lakes and rivers can cause an oxygen-deficient situation to occur. Aquatic life can have a hard time in stagnant water that has a lot of rotting, organic material in it, especially in summer, when dissolved-oxygen levels are at a seasonal low.

Water 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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