Water Color

Science Center Objects

Is pure water really clear? Not really—even pure water is not colorless, but has a slight blue tint to it. In the natural world you often see water that is definitely not clear. Sediment and organics color natural water shades of brown or green. And if too much iron in present, even your drinking water can have a brown hue. Read on to investigate water color in the environment.

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It may be true that a bit of color in water may not make it harmful to drink ... but it certainly makes it unappealing to drink. So, color in our water does matter when it comes to drinking it, as well as in water for other home uses, industrial uses, and in some aquatic environments.


Woman holding a cup of brown water.

"Care for a cup of delicious water?
It's just a bit of suspended ferrous iron!

Credit: Petr Kraatochvil, Public Domain Pictures

Color and drinking water

If you have ever drunk water containing a bit of iron in it, you would know from the metallic taste left in your mouth. Dissolved chemicals in drinking water can be less than desirable. Color in drinking water can be caused by dissolved and suspended materials, and a brown shade in water often comes from rust in the water pipes. Although water can contain contaminants, which are usually removed by water-supply systems, the plus side is that the water you drink likely contains a number of dissolved minerals that are beneficial for human health. And, if you have ever drunk "pure" water, such as distilled or deionized water, you would have noticed that it tasted "flat". Most people prefer water with dissolved minerals, although they still want it to be clear.

Have you ever gotten a glass of water from your faucet and the water is milky white water or hazy? This is almost always caused by air in the water. To see if the white color in the water is due to air, fill a clear glass with water and set it on the counter. Observe the glass of water for a minute. If the white color is due to air, the water will begin to clear at the bottom of the glass first and then gradually will clear all the way to the top. This is a natural phenomenon and is caused by dissolved air in the water that is released when the faucet is opened. When you relieve the pressure by opening the faucet and filling your glass with water, the air is now free to escape from the water, giving it a milky appearance for a few minutes.

Glasses of water from a tap showing air bubbles, making the water appear cloudy.

Air bubbles and pressure in water lines can make your drinking water look
cloudy....for a few seconds.


Water looks blue when it is deep enough.

An indoor swimming pool appears blue from above. as light reflecting from the bottom of the pool travels through enough water that its red component is absorbed. The same water in a smaller bucket appears colorless.

Pure water and color

Is pure water really clear? First, you won't find truly pure water in a natural setting. The water you see every day contains dissolved minerals and often suspended materials. But, for practical purposes, if you fill a glass from your faucet the water will look colorless to you. The water is in fact not colorless; even pure water is not colorless, but has a slight blue tint to it, best seen when looking through a long column of water. The blueness in water is not caused by the scattering of light, which is responsible for the sky being blue. Rather, water blueness comes from the water molecules absorbing the red end of the spectrum of visible light. To be even more detailed, the absorption of light in water is due to the way the atoms vibrate and absorb different wavelengths of light. The details are beyond the scope of this Web site, but Webexhibits explains this in much more detail.


Color and water in the environment

Color in water you see around you can be imparted in two ways: dissolved and suspended components. An example of dissolved substances is tannin, which is caused by organic matter coming from leaves, roots, and plant remains (picture below on the left). Another example would be the cup of hot tea your grandmother has in the afternoon. In the picture below the color is probably attributable to naturally dissolved organic acids formed when plant material is slowly broken down by into tiny particles that are essentially dissolved in the water. If you filtered that tannin-water in the picture the color would probably remain.

In nature, water will have some extent of color, as from sediment or tannin

Natural water will never be totally clear, but will have some amount of color.

Most of the color in water you see around you comes from suspended material (pictured above on the right) of a tributary contributing highly-turbid water containing suspended sediment (fine particles of clay) to clearer, but still colored, water in the main stem of the river. Algae and suspended sediment particles are very common particulate matter that cause natural waters to become colored. Even though the muddy water would not be appealing to swim in, in a way that water has less color than the water containing dissolved tannins. That is because suspended matter can be filtered out of even very dirty-looking water. If the water is put into a glass and left to settle for a number of days, most of the material will settle to the bottom (this method is used in sewage-treatment facilities) and the water will become clearer and have less color. So, if an industry needed some color-free water for an industrial process, they would probably prefer sediment-laden water over tannin colored water.

Suspended material in water bodies may be a result of natural causes and/or human activity. Transparent water with a low accumulation of dissolved materials appears blue. Dissolved organic matter, such as humus, peat or decaying plant matter, can produce a yellow or brown color. Some algae or dinoflagellates produce reddish or deep yellow waters. Water rich in phytoplankton and other algae usually appears green. Soil runoff produces a variety of yellow, red, brown and gray colors.


A sink with iron stains

High dissolved iron in the tap water has, over time, stained the porcelain in the sink.

Effects of color on ecosystems

Highly colored water has significant effects on aquatic plants and algal growth. Light is very critical for the growth of aquatic plants and colored water can limit the penetration of light. Thus a highly colored body of water could not sustain aquatic life which could lead to the long term impairment of the ecosystem. Very high algal growth that stays suspended in a water body can prevent light penetration as well as use up the dissolved oxygen in the water body, causing a eutrophic condition that can drastically reduce all life in the water body. At home, colored water may stain textile and fixtures and can cause permanent damage, as the picture of the sink shows.