What are the chemical parameters of good water quality?

Alkalinity is one of the first considerations when it comes to the chemical quality of source water. Alkalinity is not a pollutant. It is a total measure of the substances in water that have "acid-neutralizing" ability. Don't confuse alkalinity with pH. pH measures the strength of an acid or base; alkalinity indicates a solution's power to react with acid and "buffer" its pH - that is, the power to keep its pH from changing. To illustrate, we will compare two samples of pure water and buffered water. Absolutely pure water has a pH of exactly 7.0. It contains no acids, no bases, and no (zero) alkalinity. The buffered water, with a pH of 6.0, can have high alkalinity. If you add a small amount of weak acid to both water samples, the pH of the pure water will change instantly (become more acid). But the buffered water's pH won't change easily because the Alka-Seltzer-like buffers absorb the acid and keep it from "expressing itself."

floating fish

Alkalinity is important for fish and aquatic life because it protects or buffers against pH changes (keeps the pH fairly constant) and makes water less vulnerable to acid rain. The main sources of natural alkalinity are rocks, which contain carbonate, bicarbonate, and hydroxide compounds. Borates, silicates, and phosphates may also contribute to alkalinity. Limestone is rich in carbonates, so waters flowing through limestone regions generally have high alkalinity - hence its good buffering capacity. Conversely, granite does not have minerals that contribute to alkalinity. Therefore, areas rich in granite have low alkalinity and poor buffering capacity.

Chlorine is a greenish-yellow gas that dissolves easily in water. It has a pungent, noxious odor that some people can smell at concentrations above 0.3 parts per million. Because chlorine is an excellent disinfectant, it is commonly added to most drinking water supplies in the US. In parts of the world where chlorine is not added to drinking water, thousands of people die each day from waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera. Chlorine is also used as a disinfectant in wastewater treatment plants and swimming pools. It is widely used as a bleaching agent in textile factories and paper mills, and it's an important ingredient in many laundry bleaches. Free chlorine (chlorine gas dissolved in water) is toxic to fish and aquatic organisms, even in very small amounts.

However, its dangers are relatively short-lived compared to the dangers of most other highly poisonous substances. That is because chlorine reacts quickly with other substances in water (and forms combined chlorine) or dissipates as a gas into the atmosphere. The free chlorine test measures only the amount of free or dissolved chlorine in the water. The total chlorine test measures both free and combined forms of chlorine. If the water contains a lot of decaying materials, free chlorine can combine with them to form compounds called trihalomethanes or THMs. Some THMs in high concentrations are carcinogenic to people. Unlike free chlorine, THMs are persistent and can pose a health threat to living things for a long time.

People who are adding chlorine to water for disinfection must be careful with two reasons: 1) Chlorine gas even at low concentrations can irritate eyes, nasal passages, and lungs; it can even kill in a few breaths, and 2) The formation of THM compounds must be minimized because of the long-term health effects. Less than one-half (0.5) mg/L of free chlorine is needed to kill bacteria without causing water to smell or taste unpleasant. Most people can't detect the presence of chlorine in water at double (1.0 mg/L) that amount. Although 1.0 mg/L chlorine is not harmful to people, it does cause problems for fish if they are exposed to it over a long period of time.

Nitrite and Nitrate are forms of the element Nitrogen, which makes up about 80 percent of the air we breathe. As an essential component of life, nitrogen is recycled continually by plants and animals and is found in the cells of all living things. Organic nitrogen (nitrogen combined with carbon) is found in proteins and other compounds. Inorganic nitrogen may exist in the free state as a gas, as ammonia (when combined with hydrogen), or as nitrite or nitrate (when combined with oxygen). Nitrites and nitrates are produced naturally as part of the nitrogen cycle, when a bacteria 'production line' breaks down toxic ammonia wastes first into nitrite, and then into nitrate. Sources of nitrites and nitrates Nitrites are relatively short-lived because they're quickly converted to nitrates by bacteria. Nitrites produce a serious illness (brown blood disease) in fish, even though they don't exist for very long in the environment. Nitrites also react directly with hemoglobin in human blood to produce methemoglobin, which destroys the ability of blood cells to transport oxygen.

This condition is especially serious in babies under three months of age as it causes a condition known as methemoglobinemia or "blue baby" disease. Water with nitrite levels exceeding 1.0 mg/L should not be given to babies. Nitrite concentrations in drinking water seldom exceed 0.1 mg/L. Nitrate is a major ingredient of farm fertilizer and is necessary for crop production. When it rains, varying nitrate amounts wash from farmland into nearby waterways. Nitrates also get into waterways from lawn fertilizer run-off, leaking septic tanks and cesspools, manure from farm livestock, animal wastes (including fish and birds), and discharges from car exhausts. Nitrates stimulate the growth of plankton and waterweeds that provide food for fish. This may increase the fish population.

However, if algae grow too wildly, oxygen levels will be reduced and fish will die. Nitrates can be reduced to toxic nitrites in the human intestine, and many babies have been seriously poisoned by well water containing high levels of nitrate-nitrogen. The U.S. Public Health Service has established 10 mg/L of nitrate-nitrogen as the maximum contamination level allowed in public drinking water. Effects of nitrates and nitrites on fish and aquatic life Nitrate-nitrogen levels below 90 mg/L and nitrite levels below 0.5 mg/L seem to have no effect on warm-water fish*, but salmon and other cold-water fish are more sensitive. The recommended nitrite minimum for salmon is 0.06 mg/L. Dissolved oxygen (DO, pronounced dee-oh) is oxygen that is dissolved in water. It gets there by diffusion from the surrounding air; aeration of water that has tumbled over falls and rapids; and as a waste product of photosynthesis.

Fish and aquatic animals cannot split oxygen from water (H2O) or other oxygen-containing compounds. Only green plants and some bacteria can do that through photosynthesis and similar processes. Virtually all the oxygen we breathe is manufactured by green plants. A total of three-fourths of the earth's oxygen supply is produced by phytoplankton in the oceans. If water is too warm, there may not be enough oxygen in it. When there are too many bacteria or aquatic animals in the area, they may overpopulate, using DO in great amounts.

Oxygen levels also can be reduced through over-fertilization of water plants by run-off from farm fields containing phosphates and nitrates (the ingredients in fertilizers). Under these conditions, the numbers and size of water plants increase a great deal. Then, if the weather becomes cloudy for several days, respiring plants will use much of the available DO. When these plants die, they become food for bacteria, which in turn multiply and use large amounts of oxygen. How much does an aquatic organism need depend upon its species, its physical state, water temperature, pollutants present, and more? Consequently, it's impossible to accurately predict minimum DO levels for specific fish and aquatic animals. For example, at 5 C (41 F), trout use about 50-60 milligrams (mg) of oxygen per hour; at 25 C (77 F), they may need five or six times that amount. Fish are cold-blooded animals, so they use more oxygen at higher temperatures when their metabolic rate increases.

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