In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Water Quality in Freshwater Bodies

  • Introduction
  • Background and Overviews
  • Aesthetic Values and Recreational Use
  • Aquaculture Water Quality

Environmental Science Water Quality in Freshwater Bodies
Claude E. Boyd
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0105


Any feature of water that affects its use by humans or its benefits to aquatic environments is a water quality variable. Since the early days of civilization, people have noticed that waters from some sources were impaired for particular uses. Water quality could not be quantitatively assessed throughout most of human history, but differences in waters were recognized by appearance, taste, odor, and effects on people, animals, and plants. Some waters were not suitable for particular purposes, such as domestic use, livestock water, or irrigation. Certain diseases were especially common in areas with a lot of standing water, and early civilizations tended to develop in river valleys of arid regions. It was not until the mid-1800s that a definite connection was established between contamination of water with human waste and disease transmission. The production of goods for human use was affected by the availability and quality of water, which limited these activities to locations where water of adequate quality was available. After the Industrial Revolution, about 1750, people began to develop techniques for improving the quality of source water for various uses. It also became apparent that water quality was impaired by many water uses, and that the discharge of such water damaged the quality of receiving water bodies and caused ecological damage. Much information has been generated about water quality as it relates to human health and water supply for domestic, industrial, and agricultural uses. Water quality also has great importance to the ecology of natural and man-made water bodies, and it affects the aesthetic value and recreational use of water bodies. Aquatic animals and plants are important as human food, and the demand for fish and other aquatic food products can no longer be met by harvests of fish and other aquatic animals and plants from inland and marine waters. One reason for the declining harvests is water pollution, and there also is a greater demand for fisheries products because of population increase. Aquaculture, the controlled cultivation of aquatic organisms, provides about half of the world’s aquatic animal production for human consumption and nearly all seaweed production for human use. Good water quality is also essential in aquaculture. This article focuses on aspects of water quality important to the structure and function of freshwater aquatic ecosystems, the enjoyment of water by humans for recreational and aesthetic purposes, and the production of fisheries products.

Background and Overviews

There is a finite amount of freshwater available for human use, and deterioration of water quality renders water unusable for many purposes. Water quality has been and continues to be a topic of great importance to society. Investigations of water quality have revealed that it is a complex topic involving a multitude of physical, chemical, and biological variables and processes, and their interactions. Many analytical procedures have been developed to measure water quality variables, and water quality investigations are frequently conducted to support water supply, water use, and environmental protection efforts. Because of the complexity of the topic, students and investigators of water quality must often consult previous findings about the physics and chemistry of water and about the ways in which aquatic life impacts upon and is impacted by water quality. Numerous books provide broad discussions of water quality variables and their interactions, a few of which are listed here. Texts on water chemistry (Stumm and Morgan 1996) and the physics of water (Eisenberg and Kauzmann 2005) present rigorous treatments of these topics too advanced for many of those interested in water quality. More easily understood but less rigorous treatments of the physics and chemistry of water may be found in Snoeyink and Jenkins 1980 and Boyd 2015. Good sources of information on the biological aspects of natural waters are Wetzel 2001, an authoritative text on limnology, and aquatic ecology texts such as Lampert and Sommer 2007 and Cole and Weihe 2016. Rice, et al. 2012 is the 22nd edition of this text, which is the most authoritative source of analytical protocols for water quality measurements.

  • Boyd, C. E. 2015. Water quality: An introduction. 2d ed. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-17446-4

    This book focuses on interactions of physical, chemical, and biological factors that affect water quality and the ecology of water bodies. Explanations of physical and chemical water quality variables and chemical reactions in water are presented in a simplified manner, understandable by those with knowledge of general, college-level chemistry.

  • Cole, G. A., and P. E. Weihe. 2016. Textbook of limnology. 5th ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

    An excellent discussion of biological communities in wetlands, streams, and lakes is provided. This work also discusses interactions among physical, chemical, and biological factors that control water quality in these systems.

  • Eisenberg, D., and W. Kauzmann. 2005. The structure and properties of water. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198570264.001.0001

    This reference work provides in-depth explanations of the structure and physical properties of water. The discussion of the dipolar nature of water molecules, which allows hydrogen bonding and imparts several unique characteristics to water, is especially important. Hydrogen bonding has far-reaching influences on the behavior of water in nature and also influences water quality.

  • Lampert, W., and U. Sommer. 2007. Limnoecology: The ecology of lakes and streams. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The focus of this effort is on interactions among water quality and aquatic communities. However, it also contains information on eutrophication, climate change, and several other current issues that affect water quality.

  • Rice, E. W., R. B. Baird, A. D. Eaton, and L. S. Clesceri, eds. 2012. Standard methods for the examination of water and wastewater. 22nd ed. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association.

    This is the most authoritative source of methods of water quality analysis. There is an explanation of the principles behind each procedure. The protocols for analysis of essentially all physical, chemical, and biological variables are given in a step-by-step manner. The current volume of this book is always quite expensive, but it is possible to purchase older volumes at a lower price from online book vendors. Copublished by the American Water Works Association and Water Environment Federation.

  • Snoeyink, V. L., and D. Jenkins. 1980. Water chemistry. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

    This book provides an in-depth treatment of water chemistry understandable to those with only basic training in college chemistry. Although somewhat dated, it remains a valuable asset because it gives relatively simple explanations of several important processes controlling water quality that involve several chemical reactions occurring simultaneously.

  • Stumm, W., and J. J. Morgan. 1996. Aquatic chemistry: Chemical equilibria and rates in natural waters. 3d ed. New York: Wiley.

    This book covers almost every aspect of water chemistry, but the presentation is rigorous. The authors focus on the many chemical equilibria in natural waters, and the reader must have a good background in chemistry. It is suggested that readers first study less rigorous treatments of chemical equilibria in water quality and use this book when greater detail is needed.

  • Wetzel, R. G. 2001. Limnology: Lake and river ecosystems. 3d ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    This text is the most authoritative treatment of limnology available today. It covers all areas of the field, but biological aspects are given greater emphasis than are physical and chemical ones. This book is difficult reading, so the reader may want to consult the less rigorous aquatic ecology books listed here before attempting Wetzel’s text.

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