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Stream Water Quality - Importance of Total Suspended Solids / Turbidity

Turbidity is the reduction of clarity in water due to the presence of suspended or colloidal particles. Turbidity is measured by the amount of light which is reflected by the particles.

Turbidity is commonly used as an indicator for the general condition of the drinking water because it is an easy field water-quality parameter to measure. Turbidity in water is caused by suspended matter such as clay, silt, and organic matter and by plankton and other microscopic organisms that interfere with the passage of light through the water (American Public Health Association, 1998). Turbidity is closely related to total suspended solids (TSS), but also includes plankton and other organisms. Turbidity of natural waters tends to increase during runoff events as a result of increased overland flow, turbulent stream flow, and erosion.

The suspended or colloidal particles, commonly referred to as total suspended solids (TSS), are all the extremely small suspended solids in water which will not settle out by gravity. TSS is measured on a sample of water (which has been settled) and are those particles which will not pass through a very fine filter (usually 0.45 micron). The filter is pre-weighed prior to passing water through it, and post-weighed. The difference in the two weights is the TSS concentration (in mg/L).

Turbidity itself is not a major health concern, but high turbidity can interfere with disinfection and provide a medium for microbial growth. It also may indicate the presence of microbes (U.S. EPA Office of Water, Current Drinking Water Standards).

Measurement of Turbidity

Turbidity is a measure of how much of the light traveling through water is scattered by suspended particles. The scattering of light increases with increasing suspended solid and plankton content. Turbidity in slow-moving, deep waters can be measured using a device called a Secchi disk. A Secchi disk is a black and white, 20-cm diameter disk. The disk is lowered into the water until it just disappears from sight. The depth at which the disk disappears is called the Secchi depth, and is recorded in meters.

A Secchi disk does not work in shallow, fast-moving streams. In these waters, a turbidimeter (sometimes called a nephelometer) is used. A turbidimeter measures the scattering of light, and provides a relative measure of turbidity in Nephelometric Turbidity Units (NTUs). A less expensive method of measuring turbidity is to evaluate the fuzziness of a mark at the bottom of a clear tube when a water sample is poured in the tube. Units are reported in Jackson Turbidity Units (JTUs). This method can only be used in highly turbid waters.

Factors Affecting Turbidity

Because one of the primary factors affecting turbidity is total suspended solids, the factors affecting TSS will also affect turbidity. In addition, organic matter contributes to turbidity.

High Flow Rates

The flow rate of a water body is a primary factor influencing turbidity concentrations. Fast-running water can carry more particles and larger-sized sediment. Heavy rains can pick up sand, silt, clay, and organic particles from the land and carry it to surface water. A change in flow rate can also affect turbidity; if the speed or direction of the water current increases, particulate matter from bottom sediments may be resuspended.

Soil Erosion

Soil erosion is caused by disturbance of a land surface. Soil erosion can be caused by Building and Road Construction, Forest Fires, Logging, and Mining. The eroded soil particles can be carried by stormwater to surface water. This will increase the turbidity of the water body.

Urban Runoff

During storm events, soil particles and debris from streets and industrial, commercial, and residential areas can be washed into streams. Because of the large amount of pavement in urban areas, natural settling areas have been removed, and sediment is carried through storm drains to creeks and rivers.

Wastewater and Septic System Effluent

The effluent from Wastewater Treatment Plants (WWTPs) can add suspended solids and organic material to a stream. The wastewater from our houses contains food residue, human waste, and other solid material that we put down our drains. Most of the solids and organic material are removed from the water at the WWTP before being discharged to the stream, but treatment can’t eliminate everything.

Decaying Plants and Animals

As plants and animals present in a water body die and decay, suspended organic particles are released and can contribute to turbidity.

Bottom-Feeding Fish

Bottom-feeding fish (such as carp) can stir up sediments as they remove vegetation. These sediments can contribute to turbidity.

Algal Blooms

Algal blooms can contribute to turbidity. Algal production is enhanced when nutrients are released from bottom sediments during seasonal turnovers and changes in water currents.


As flood waters recede, they will bring along inorganic and organic particles from the land surface, and contribute these particles to the stream.

Water Quality Standards Regarding Turbidity

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Surface Water Treatment Rule requires systems using surface water or groundwater under the direct influence of surface water to (1) disinfect their water, and (2) filter their water or meet criteria for avoiding filtration so that at no time can turbidity go above 5 nephelometric turbidity units (NTUs). Treatment systems that use filtration must ensure that the turbidity goes no higher than 1 NTU (0.5 NTU for conventional or direct filtration) in at least 95% of the daily samples taken in any month.

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