For the InstructorThese student materials complement the Water Science and Society Instructor Materials. If you would like your students to have access to the student materials, we suggest you either point them at the Student Version which omits the framing pages with information designed for faculty (and this box). Or you can download these pages in several formats that you can include in your course website or local Learning Managment System. Learn more about using, modifying, and sharing InTeGrate teaching materials.
The Chemistry of Natural Waters
Natural waters have a broad range of total dissolved solids (TDS). Some fresh mountain streams might have TDS concentrations less than 250mg/kg. Seawater, on average, has TDS concentrations of nearly 35g/kg. Extreme TDS values are found in highly evaporated lake or isolated seawater basins and in the deep subsurface (so-called "formation waters"), with TDS of nearly 350g/kg (35% salt solution!). We will focus here briefly on the compositions of potential drinking water sources (rivers and lakes) and the origins of the dissolved species.
Flowing water, whether in aquifers or streams, interacts with rocks and soils and slowly dissolves some of their chemical constituents. The pH (hydrogen ion activity) of the water determines the rate of dissolution and solubility of many chemical species. However, we will not discuss chemical processes in any detail here. Some chemical substances, particularly redox-sensitive trace metals (e.g. Fe, Mn, Pb, As and others), are more soluble when natural waters are depleted in dissolved oxygen (see the section called Contaminant Example 2 below). Most chemical species in natural waters have both natural and pollutant sources of many types (Table 1).
|Ion (molecule)||Natural Source||Pollutant Source|
|Sodium (Na+)||1, 2||8|
|Magnesium (Mg+)||1, 2||8|
|Potassium (K+)||1, 2, 3||8, 14|
|Calcium (Ca+)||1, 2||8, 9, 10|
|Sulfate (SO42-)||1, 2, 5, 6||8, 10|
|Nitrate (NO32-)||4, 5||8, 10, 11, 14|
|Ammonium (NH4+)||5||14, 5|
|Phosphate (PO43-)||2, 3, 5||8, 14|
|Bicarbonate (HCO32-)||7||7 (5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)|
|SiO2, Al, Fe||2||12|
Key for Table Above
- wind-blown sea salt
- soil dust
- biogenic aerosols
- lightning and N2 in atmosphere
- biological decay
- volcanic activity
- carbon dioxide in air
- biomass burning
- cement manufacture
- fuel combustion
- automobile emissions
- land clearing
- gas reactions
- industrial chemicals
Natural waters also contained dissolved gasses. For example, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is dissolved in water, and, through a series of chemical reactions, contributes to the total dissolved carbon in waters—primarily bicarbonate (HCO32-). Gas solubility is inversely proportional to temperature and TDS. For example, dissolved oxygen solubility is shown as a function of temperature and salinity in Figure 1. Note that the amount of oxygen that can be held in fresh water decreases nearly 50% from near freezing temperature to 35 °C. These are maximum concentrations, but natural waters can have lower dissolved oxygen concentrations as the result of biological activity such as the metabolism of water inhabitants, including bacteria. Photosynthesis of algae and aqueous plants can add oxygen to the water in which these primary producers grow. However, the breakdown of organic material by bacteria consumes dissolved oxygen. Thus, in waters below the surface wind-mixed layer (usually tens of meters or more) or in stably stratified lakes or bays, for which rates of oxygen replenishment to deeper depths are slow, deficiencies in dissolved oxygen can develop, with anoxia (total depletion of dissolved oxygen) at the extreme. Excess nutrient supply can have the same impact on a water body (eutrophication: see Module 1 and Contaminant Example 2: "Dead Zones" and Excess Nutrient Runoff) with deleterious effects on the aquatic biota.
Source: Michael Arthur, Penn State
Activate Your Learning
Go to: the USGS Water Quality Watch website and examine the various maps showing aspects of surface water quality for U.S. monitoring stations (Temperature, conductivity (salinity in ppm), pH, dissolved oxygen (D.O.), turbidity, nitrate (ppm), discharge).
Once you are ready, answer the questions in the spaces provided below. Click the "Click for answer" button to check your answer.
1. Animate the map for dissolved oxygen in surface waters for the past year (a clickable link). Watch the eastern half of the U.S. carefully and describe the trends in DO that you observe. Why does DO in this region vary the way it does (e.g., what is the main control and how does it work?).
2a. Click on the map for nitrate. Notice that there are many fewer stations with such data because it is more difficult to routinely measure nitrate concentrations. The available stations are probably mostly monitored because the waterways are in some way impaired.
What are the states (three) with highest nitrate concentrations? Speculate as to the possible causes(s) of high nitrate in waterways in these states.
2b.Click on the State of Iowa. Then click on one of the monitoring stations (try Boone River near Webster, IA. What is the current nitrate concentration? Is this above or below drinking water standards? Click on "nitrate graph." How has nitrate varied over the past week? Why would nitrate concentration vary? Suggest a way to back up your answer with available data for that site; does it work?
3a. Click on the map for specific conductance (μS/cm or microSiemens/cm, a measurement of TDS concentration if properly calibrated: use 1000 μS/cm = 640 ppm as TDS, and the scaling is roughly linear, e.g., 103 μS/cm = 6.4 x103 ppm TDS).
Where are surface waters with the highest specific conductance? Why are they high? What is the approximate TDS value for the highest stations (above what value?).
3b. Why are there a number of streams in the continental interior that have values above 2400 μS/cm. What is this minimum value in TDS? Check out North Dakota, for example. Does a stream with above 2400 μS/cm specific conductance meet drinking water standards? If not, where do you think the drinking water in that area comes from?
3c. Many of the streams that have relatively high specific conductance observed in question 3b, vary over the year (animate the map and revise your answer to 3b if you see a pattern). However, the specific conductance of the Pecos River in Texas does not vary much (it stands out in southwest Texas) and is quite high. Provide possible reasons why (hint: think about types of rocks that might be in its drainage)?