What'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 CoreCast.


Episode Number: 175

Date Taken:

Length: 00:07:55

Location Taken: US


[USGS CoreCast Introduction]

[Steven Sobieszczyk] Hello and Welcome.

This is the USGS CoreCast, I’m Steven

Sobieszczyk. In this episode of the

CoreCast we are actually going to be

rebroadcasting a previously released

video from the USGS Oregon Science

Podcast. We figured the topic of water

quality, as discussed in the video, was

representative of the hydrologic

research that the USGS, as a whole, does

around that country. Therefore, it fit

in really well with other CoreCast

products. So, without further ado, this

is, “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 usgs.gov/water.