The USGS Water Science School
Turbidity is the measure of relative clarity of a liquid. It is an optical characteristic of water and is an expression of the amount of light that is scattered by material in the water when a light is shined through the water sample. The higher the intensity of scattered light, the higher the turbidity. Material that causes water to be turbid include clay, silt, finely divided inorganic and organic matter, algae, soluble colored organic compounds, and plankton and other microscopic organisms.
Turbidity makes water cloudy or opaque. The picture to the left shows a USGS hydrologist sampling highly turbid water in the Colorado River in Arizona. The water collected in the bottle will be used to find out the turbidity, which is measured by shining a light through the water and is reported in nephelometric turbidity units (NTU). During periods of low flow (base flow), many rivers are a clear green color, and turbidities are low, usually less than 10 NTU. During a rainstorm, particles from the surrounding land are washed into the river making the water a muddy brown color, indicating water that has higher turbidity values. Also, during high flows, water velocities are faster and water volumes are higher, which can more easily stir up and suspend material from the stream bed, causing higher turbidities.
Turbidity and water quality
Sediment-laden water from a inflow stream entering a much clearer Lake Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA (Credit: City of Tuscaloosa, Alabama) Credit: City of Tuscaloosa, Alabama View full size
High concentrations of particulate matter affect light penetration and productivity, recreational values, and habitat quality, and cause lakes to fill in faster. In streams, increased sedimentation and siltation can occur, which can result in harm to habitat areas for fish and other aquatic life. Particles also provide attachment places for other pollutants, notably metals and bacteria. For this reason, turbidity readings can be used as an indicator of potential pollution in a water body.
Turbidity and human health
Excessive turbidity, or cloudiness, in drinking water is aesthetically unappealing, and may also represent a health concern. Turbidity can provide food and shelter for pathogens. If not removed, turbidity can promote regrowth of pathogens in the distribution system, leading to waterborne disease outbreaks, which have caused significant cases of gastroenteritis throughout the United States and the world. Although turbidity is not a direct indicator of health risk, numerous studies show a strong relationship between removal of turbidity and removal of protozoa. The particles of turbidity provide "shelter" for microbes by reducing their exposure to attack by disinfectants. Microbial attachment to particulate material has been considered to aid in microbe survival. Fortunately, traditional water treatment processes have the ability to effectively remove turbidity when operated properly. (Source: EPA)
State-of-the-art turbidity meters (left-side picture) are beginning to be installed in rivers to provide an instantaneous turbidity reading. The right-side picture shows a closeup of the meter. The large tube is the turbidity sensor; it reads turbidity in the river by shining a light into the water and reading how much light is reflected back to the sensor. The smaller tube contains a conductivity sensor to measure electrical conductance of the water, which is strongly influenced by dissolved solids (the two holes) and a temperature gauge (the metal rod).
Do you want to test your local water quality?
Water test kits are available from World Water Monitoring Day (WWMD). Teachers and water-science enthusiasts: Do you want to be able to perform basic water-quality tests on local waters? WWMD offers inexpensive test kits so you can perform your own tests for temperature, pH, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen.
World Water Monitoring Day is an international education and outreach program that builds public awareness and involvement in protecting water resources around the world.
Some information on this page is from "A Primer on Water Quality", by Swanson, H.A., and Baldwin, H.L., U.S. Geological Survey, 1965
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