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Wha’’s in Our Water?

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Detailed Description

In this episode, we are going to investigate more than just the substance “water.” We are going to examine what is in our nations’ water, how we at the U.S. Geological Survey monitor it, and what tools we have developed to aid those who want to explore more about our planet’s most abundant resource. This is the USGS Oregon Science Podcast.




Public Domain.


What's in Our Water?


[Intro Music begins]

[Steven Sobieszczyk] Water. Such a simple molecule. Just two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen. Small. Innocuous. Yet when combined with countless others, it has the power to reshape the entire planet. One of the basic building blocks of life, water is much is more than just a simple liquid. Entrained in water is a whole world of microscopic materials. Sediment. Organisms. Dissolved minerals. Even harmful chemicals. In this episode, we are going to investigate more than just the substance - water. We are going to examine what is in our nations’ water, how we at the U.S. Geological Survey monitor it, and what tools we have developed to aid those who want to explore more about our planet’s most abundant resource. This is…the USGS Oregon Science Podcast.

[Steven Sobieszczyk] The term “water quality” covers a vast range of physical and chemical traits of water. It can refer to any number of characteristics of water, such as dissolved or particulate matter trapped in the water column. This may include materials like dissolved minerals (sodium and potassium, for example) or suspended particles like organic carbon (which is basically broken down leaf litter or other decomposing organic matter) or fine-grained sediment (such as dirt washed away from hillsides). In addition, those who investigate water quality may be interested in other water properties like acidity or conductivity. Or, in the case of greatest concern for most people, pollution. To help simplify this potentially overwhelming subject of water quality, we will focus on conditions in local streams here in Oregon.

[Stewart Rounds] So living here in the Pacific Northwest, we really are blessed with some great water resources. We have wonderful streams and lakes. Although, there are some places where people say, “I wouldn’t want to swim or fish in that river! Oh, it’s disgusting!” You know, let’s think about this problem with a little bit of perspective. Back in the 1930s and 40s, boy, the Willamette was an open sewer. But, there was a big cleanup that happened in the 1940s and as we understand, a little bit more about some of the types of water-quality problems there were successive cleanups. There was another big cleanup in the 1970s and the 1990s. So, today, you can go swimming in the Willamette River. You can go fishing in the Willamette River and it’s really in pretty good condition.

[Steven Sobieszczyk] Dr. Stewart Rounds is the USGS Water Quality Specialist in Oregon. As with most hydrologists, Stewart has always had a passion for water.

[Stewart Rounds] You know, water quality has always been something that has interested me. Ever since I was a kid. I wanted to know how things work. And I look at a river and I want to know more about it. I want to know where the water comes from, how good the water quality is, whether it’s good for fish, what its carrying, where it’s going to, how things change… Understanding processes in natural systems, it’s just fascinating.

[Steven Sobieszczyk] Dr. Round’s research focuses on water-quality monitoring of rivers and lakes, including water temperature, nutrient transport, and water-related concerns due to algae. What types of problems do algae cause in our local rivers? Well…that all depends on how much algae there is.

[Stewart Rounds] So, algae is an important thing that we study and it’s not entirely a bad thing, right? Algae is the base of the food chain. If we didn’t have algae than we wouldn’t have anything for the zooplankton to eat. And if the zooplankton didn’t eat anything than we wouldn’t have any food for the fish. And if we don’t have fish, well, you can take it from there. So algae is good in many ways because it’s the base of the food chain. On the other had we don’t want too much of a good thing because then it can lead to pH levels that are too high, which is not good for fish. Or when the algae are no longer growing, they can use up too much oxygen and cause problems that way.

[Steven Sobieszczyk] Algae is just one of many parameters, or characteristics, of water quality that the USGS monitors. Other parameters commonly measured include water temperature, pH (or acidity), and turbidity (which is the cloudiness or dirtiness of water). All of these data are collected and stored online in our National Water Information System, or NWIS, database. The water quality data are free, and can be accessed through the NWIS website, or through the online software package, USGS Data Grapher.

[Stewart Rounds] So the data grapher is set of online tools that allow users to create customized graphs and tables of a whole variety of time-series data that are served up by the U.S. Geological Survey. Let’s start by looking at a time series graph from one site. In this example, let’s take a look at some pH data from the Clackamas River near the mouth of that river at Oregon City. The results show you some of the inputs that you ask for and the graph, and you can see that the pH values in mid-summer can reach relatively high values near 9, and that the patterns in pH decrease when the streamflow goes up. Another way to visualize those patters in the pH data in the Clackamas River is to use a color map. The color map shows some interesting patterns that we saw in the time series graph. We had higher pH values at particular times in the spring and summer and we had lower pH values for a time between those peaks when the discharge was higher.

[Steven Sobieszczyk] As part of its overall mission, the USGS measures the quantity and quality of the nation’s waters. This work is completed through the use of a network of over 7,000 streamflow gages. In Oregon alone, there are over 200 streamflow monitoring locations, many of which also continuously monitor different water-quality properties. Each year, scientists, like Dr. Rounds, continue to observe lakes and rivers, and through new tools they develop, help explore how water quality changes in the world around us. For more on what the USGS is doing through its National Water Quality Assessment Program or through other cooperative programs in the state, please visit our water resources information website at

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