Water Quality Indicators

There is plenty of good reasons to want to know if the creek around your property or your favorite stream that you kayak on the weekend is being contaminated. Maybe the lake you are fishing on contains pollution that is threatening it. Chances are you’ll see or smell it. What are the signs of Water Pollution?

By measuring Biological Indicators using your senses of smell and sight you will be able to get some clues and symptoms of the health of a body of water along with the ecosystem that is supported by it without testing the water. Fish & insect activity on the edge, birdlife, surface color, or sheen.

In most areas all over the country, there are drainage creeks and retention ponds that relieve areas from flooding and groundwater that constantly change the ecosystem and if we’re not aware and know the symptoms, it can degrade them and make them sick.


Signs of Contaminated Water


There are two main ways of measuring the quality of water

1. Take samples of the water and measure concentrations of chemicals that suspect that the body of water may contain. If the concentrations are too high and determined to be dangerous, the water is determined to be polluted. Measurements like this are called Chemical Indicators.

2. Another way to measure water quality involves examining fish, insects, and other aquatic life. The whole ecology, which means the area around the body of water that will support all life.  If many different types of creatures are living in and around the body of water, the quality of the water is likely to be very good.

if the river supports no fish life at all, the quality is obviously much poorer. That means that the area that surrounds the body of water may not be healthy too. Measurements like this are called biological indicators of water quality and the overall environment.

Long before Chemical Indicators are used, Biological Indicators are giving clues to everyone that uses the body of water and who comes in contact with this ecosystem. Water can provide certain indicators that there is a problem. There could be a biological indication that the health of the body of water is struggling.

There could be a problem with smaller baitfish, frogs, or minnows that are missing from the environment of the area. There could be color changes on the surface or temperature changes in the water. These are all signs and clues of water contamination in the water. There could be fewer ducks or any bug activity.  Algal blooms that have erupted overnight. All symptoms of a degrading ecosystem.

If a creek is the source of the pollution then that creek can be traced back to the source, without costly analytical equipment that a normal person would not have access to. All you would need is your eyes and nose and the will to do something about it. Most city governments have officials that answer complaints from residents on environmental matters.

A person that uses the playground across the street every day after work to chip some golf balls with his 9-iron might also notice that there a strange smells coming from the storm drain by the creek. The same with the Kayaker that uses the river at lower tides for smallmouth bass on the weekends.

We are the Stewarts of our own environment on a small scale but can make a huge difference together on a larger scale. 


Nearby activities including gas stations, agricultural use of land, an industrial complex, nearby junkyards, or landfills can affect water quality. There could be changes in the structure of land around the body of water, or the source of the water, like a creek that is feeding the system. Everything is connected to that ecosystem around the body of water. Visually you can map out any changes that may affect the area of the water. You are as much an expert by using the ecosystem as much as you do, you are more apt to notice a change.

If contaminated water enters a creek from an unknown source the surface of the water may take on a grey or orange color, It may also smell like washing powder or detergent, which is a key sign of ‘misconnected’ household pipes. There is a distinct difference in the color and odor for someone like you to see.

Road runoff into a stream or creeks can look like suds, cloudy water, or whitish color that could indicate road salt being washed off the surface. Once in the groundwater, the salt could enter a Well supply and the drinking water and could ruin the Well.

Neighborhood creeks sometimes run through the middle of properties. There could be signs of suds, plastic bags, women’s personal products, or even toilet paper that will get caught up on the rocks in the creek. That’s an indication of a blocked sewer line or a broken sewer lateral. This kind of thing could be happening for months or even longer without anyone picking up on it. It could cause a lot of damage to the creek in the neighborhood.

Oily sheens on the water that are rainbow or blueish color are signs of contaminants entering the water source from a connection or a path that is not supposed to be there. Probably the worst sign of organic pollution in a stream is when normal green or brown stream algae become replaced by colorless slimes formed by Sphaerotilus bacteria, commonly known as “sewage fungus”. This is generally to be considered unexpectable in any stream or river anywhere and should be reported. This bacteria will destroy the receiving water.

Foam forms when surfactants are present in the water. Some surfactants are naturally forming but if the foam is a pure white color with a fragrant smell, this is a sign of pollution. The difference is very clear.


Bioindicators Examples


Fish Kills are a clear sign for all to see that something in the water is not right. Fish kills can result from the presence of toxic chemicals, eutrophication lack of dissolved oxygen, or elevated levels of phosphorus or bacteria from agricultural runoff.  Sometimes it’s maybe what you don’t see. The presence of small aquatic life insects, minnows, or frogs will be missing in the picture if the picture is not healthy. If you are in tune with what you used to see and it’s suddenly missing then something may have happened there.

Discolored Water may not stand out but in most cases whatever the contaminant is in the water, if it has color will most likely change the color of the water.

Color is a Standard test for the quality of water in a laboratory analyst. 

Phosphates & Other Nutrients that are in high doses are considered pollutants to receiving rivers and streams.  Wastewater effluents that discharge into a stream can be a troubled spot. Long before testing is done the receiving stream can give hints of contaminants entering the environment.

Although nutrients are needed for healthy biological activity, too much too soon will cause an algal bloom.  The receiving stream won’t be able to sustain it, the alga bloom will die and the bacteria that decompose the Algae will rob oxygen out of the water and will kill other aquatic life in the stream. Eventually, the stream becomes dead because of the low Dissolved Oxygen content that is necessary for all healthy biological environments.



What are the Effects of Water Pollution


There are all types of smells that can indicate pollution concerns. Chemicals can be dumped directly into the stream or through the storm drain that ends up in the stream around the vicinity. A person who regularly visits the area around a stream or a lake will be the one who will notice the effects between one week to the next.

There could be subtle effects or big noticeable changes like an oil spill or the smell of smoke in the woods off the jogging path in the park that shouldn’t be there and is a sign that there is a fire that needs to be reported.

 Earthy or musty odors, along with visual evidence of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, may serve as a warning that harmful cyanotoxins and other contaminants are present in lakes or reservoirs. In a newly published USGS study of cyanobacterial blooms in Midwest lakes, taste-and-odor compounds were found almost every time cyanotoxins were found, indicating odor may serve as a warning that harmful toxins are present.

Some Industrial waste that is draining into a body of water could smell sweet, dairy, or maybe like fuel oil that could be leaking from an underground tank into a creek that’s finding its way into a lake where you use your canoe fishing for largemouth. You may not see the orange waste product coming into the lake. But you can smell the odor. Detergent-like chemicals have odors and are transported along roads that access lakes and creeks. You are using your sense of smell at a place where you have been 100 times before, you’ll know before anyone else does.

The use of pesticides we use in our gardens finds their way into the creeks and streams that surround our properties. A lot of toxic pollution also enters the groundwater from highway runoff where ditches are dug to keep traffic moving.

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Causes of Water Pollution

Highways are typically covered with a cocktail of toxic chemicals these come with smells that are familiar from everything from spilled fuel and brake fluids to bits of worn tires (themselves made from chemical additives) and exhaust emissions. When it rains, these chemicals wash into drains and rivers. Oil-based products like paint thinners and solvents used for cleaning medals all end up in our environment somewhere.

It is not unusual for heavy summer rainstorms to wash sewage from treatment overflows or failed septic tanks into neighboring creeks. Sewage and toxic chemicals that are illegally dumped into rivers in high concentrations can kill large numbers of fish overnight.  If it happens once it probably happens every time it rains hard. The smell from that stuff is pretty easy to figure out. Smells like this are symptoms of water being contaminated. 

Rainstorms wash petroleum used in blacktop, off the highway, and into drainage ditches. It has been estimated that, in one year, the highway runoff from a single large city leaks as much oil into our water environment as a typical tanker spill.

After a hard summer rain, you can see the oil that is coated on a freshly paved road. Your car can slip right off the road after it’s been repaved and a summer thunderstorm washes it down.

A lot of chemicals heavy metals and pesticides are invisible to the eye and can’t be smelled they have no odor they are automatically suspected in Drinking water. A Water Filter and Well water testing are needed to use it. All water is connected and recreational water should be guarded too. Because recreational water is tomorrows Drinking Water.

The average person like us can learn to use Biological Indicators and our senses of smell and sight to evaluate symptoms and the health of our creeks, streams, or lakes in our neighborhoods every time we use them.

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JimGalloway Author/Editor




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