Relevancy and Engagement

Water Quality

Grade Levels

6 - 8


Students investigate the effects of added soil nutrients on water quality, perform chemical and physical tests on water samples, collect and identify macroinvertebrates from a freshwater system and compare physical, chemical and biological factors of an aquatic ecosystem to determine water health.

Estimated Time

Four 45 minute activities

Materials Needed

Activity 1:

  • Effect of Nutrients on Water Sources student handout, 1 per student or group
  • Lab supplies for each group:
    • 1000 ml of water from a natural source (pond, lake, stream)
    • Liquid fertilizer with varying amounts of N, P, and K
    • 5 Beakers (or other containers: erlenmeyer flasks, tupperware containers, clear plastic cups, 2L bottle)
    • 10 ml Graduated cylinder
    • 100 ml graduated cylinder
    • Plastic pipettes
    • Microscope
    • Markers/labeling tape

Activity 2:

  • Physical and Chemical Water Testing student handout, 1 per student or group
  • Lab supplies for each group:
    • LaMotte Low Cost Water Monitoring kit
    • BOD bottle or quart jar with lid
    • Water sample from local water system
    • Protective gloves

Activity 3:

Activity 4:

Vocabulary Words

algal bloom: a rapid growth of microscopic algae or cyanobacteria in water, often resulting in a colored scum on the surface

biodiversity: the variety of life in the world or in a particular habitat or ecosystem

ecosystem: a biological community of living organisms interacting with the nonliving parts of their environment

fertilizer: a substance used to increase the level of nutrients in soil

hypoxic: little or no dissolved oxygen

runoff: the draining away of water from the surface of an area of land

Background Agricultural Connections

Water quality is a critical issue across the United States and globally. Over the past fifty years, the amount of nutrient input into natural water systems has been dramatically reduced from nonpoint sources such as agricultural fields. Best management practices such as reduced tillage, biofilters, and nutrient management have reduced edge of field sediment loss by 55%, nitrogen loss (surface runoff) by 42%, nitrogen loss (subsurface flow) by 31%, and phosphorus losses by 41%. Today’s farmers are producing more corn with fewer resources by planting genetically modified crops with drought-resistant traits and maximizing infiltration rates for their soil type. With the help of source water protection programs through the USDA and nutrient practices such as the 4 Rs (right source, right rate, right time, and right place), the production of agricultural crops and their impact on water quality have changed significantly.

Chemical tests are designed to give accurate readings of the present water quality’s chemical properties such as dissolved oxygen, nitrates, nitrites, phosphate, and ammonia levels. Many of these chemical properties can change very quickly within an aquatic system and have immediate effects on the organisms that live there. Dissolved oxygen, for example, is the amount of gaseous oxygen (O2) dissolved in an aqueous solution and is vital for all aquatic life. It is in constant flux due to the balance between respiration and decomposition of organisms that require dissolved oxygen and photosynthetic activity and diffusion that increase it.

Biological tests are designed to indicate the overall health of a stream based upon the vertebrate and macroinvertebrate biodiversity within the water system. Organisms are good indicators of seasonal and annual water quality due to their range of tolerance for chemical and physical factors within the aquatic system. For example, mayflies and rainbow darter fish both require water with high dissolved oxygen levels and are not found within systems with low levels of DO. Physical factors help to gauge the stream structure, flow rate, depth, turbidity, and temperature of the water. Many riparian factors may influence physical tests such as the shade cover of trees that decrease water temperature, reduce soil and nutrient erosion, and support stream integrity by maintaining stream banks. Simple changes in riparian zones can cause a stream to go into a state of chaos and rapidly change physical, chemical, and biological indicators for the worse.

Nutrients and Water Sources

Phosphorus and nitrogen are limiting factors in waterways. If they are not present in large quantities, the ecosystem will stay in balance. The algae that is naturally present is kept in check by a lack of these nutrients. When these nutrients increase, it can result in an algal bloom. As the algae increases, waters become less clear, which can block sunlight to submerged aquatic plants, causing them to revert to cellular respiration to obtain energy. This requires oxygen, and makes less oxygen available to other organisms as result. Competition increases between the algae for decreasing oxygen amounts, and eventually they begin to die. The process of decomposition also requires oxygen, causing the dissolved oxygen level to fall further. This can result in massive fish kills. The massive mats of algae can also make these bodies of water unappealing for recreation. If toxins are present, the water can be dangerous to swim in or drink.

Surface water is judged on its quality by using several parameters. The diversity and amount of biotic life and the chemical composition of the water play a role. The amount of dissolved oxygen in a body of water is critical to supporting biotic life. Different water dwellers can tolerate different levels of dissolved oxygen. An area in a body of water that has little or no dissolved oxygen is called hypoxic.

Fertilizers are an input on farm fields. The nutrients in fertilizer include nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Different fertilizers include varying amounts of N, P, and K and are used for different crops. Crops need all three nutrients in order to grow and produce seeds. Each serves a specific function in plants, and different plants have different requirements for each nutrient. The effect on water is determined by the salinity level and the plant life. N is a limiting factor in salt water (such as the Gulf of Mexico) and P is the limiting factor for fresh water. A limiting factor determines how much plant growth might occur if there is excess N or P in the water.

How do excess N and P get into water sources? When farmers apply fertilizers to fields, there is a specific amount applied per acre depending on the available nutrients in the soil and the crop that is planted. Those nutrients, if not incorporated into the soil right away, may be washed away by a rainstorm. Even if incorporated, some of those nutrients may be eroded before the plants can utilize them. 

Physical and Chemical Water Testing

Temperature is very important to water quality. Temperature affects the amount of dissolved oxygen (DO) in the water, the rate of photosynthesis by aquatic plants, and the sensitivity of organisms to toxic wastes, parasites and disease.

Turbidity is the measure of the relative clarity of water. Turbid water is caused by suspended and colloidal matter such as clay, silt, organic and inorganic matter, and microscopic organisms. Turbidity should not be confused with color, since darkly colored water can still be clear but not turbid. Turbidity may be the result of soil erosion, urban runoff, algal blooms, and bottom sediment disturbances.

pH is a measure of the hydrogen ion (H+) concentration of a solution. The pH scale ranges from a value of 0 (very acidic) to 14 (very basic), with 7 being neutral. The pH of natural water is usually between 6.5 and 8.2. Most aquatic organisms are adapted to a specific pH level and may die if the pH of the water changes even slightly. pH can be affected by industrial waste, urban and agricultural runoff, or drainage from mining operations.

Dissolved oxygen (DO) is important to the health of aquatic ecosystems. All aquatic animals need oxygen to survive. Natural waters with consistently high dissolved oxygen levels are most likely healthy and stable environments, and are capable of supporting a high biodiversity of organisms. Natural and human induced changes to the aquatic ecosystem can affect the availability of DO. Dissolved oxygen percent saturation is an important measurement of water quality. Cold water can hold more DO than warm water. High levels of bacteria or large amounts of decaying material can cause the percent saturation to decrease. This can cause large fluctuations in DO levels throughout the day, which can affect the ability of plants and animals to survive.

Nitrate is a nutrient form of nitrogen that is needed by all aquatic plants and animals to build protein. The decomposition of dead organisms and the excretions of living animals release nitrate ad other forms of nitrogen compounds into the aquatic ecosystem. Excess nutrients like nitrate increase plant growth and decay, promote bacterial decomposition, and consequently decrease the amount of DO available in the water. Sewage and fertilizer from urban and agricultural runoff contribute to high levels of nitrate.

Phosphate is a nutrient needed for plant and animal growth. It is a limiting factor in aquatic plant growth. High levels of phosphates can lead to overgrowth of plants, increased bacterial activity, and decreased DO levels. 

Biotic Sampling

Macroinvertebrates are animals without a backbone that can be seen with the naked eye. These bottom-dwelling animals include crustaceans and worms, but most are aquatic insects. Macroinvertebrates form permanent, relatively immobile stream communities that can be easily collected in large numbers for observation. They occupy all stream habitats and display a wide range of functional feeding preferences. They are important to the ecosystem and inhabit the middle of the aquatic food web as a major source of food for fish and other aquatic and terrestrial animals. Macroinvertebrates are a good indicator of changing water conditions because they demonstrate both acute and chronic reactions to environmental changes in the aquatic habitat.

The kick seine technique is a useful way to measure the macroinvertebrate diversity of an aquatic ecosystem. Macroinvertebrate taxa can tolerate varying levels of water quality conditions. Some macroinvertebrates groups can only tolerate excellent water quality, whereas other groups have a different range of tolerance for environmental conditions. Field sampling should be done when the water is warm and macroinvertebrates are active, usually from the end of May through the end of September. The best areas to locate macroinvertebrates are in areas of high oxygen concentration such as riffle zones or rapids in the benthic zone. Students will find that macroinvertebrates may cling to the bottom on rocks and humus and will need to be wiped and kicked into the net for collection. 

Interest Approach - Engagement
  1. Write the following sentence on the board, "_________ are responsible for about half of the world's food supply."
  2. Ask students if they can guess the word that belongs in the blank. Give more clues until they guess fertilizer. Instruct students to prepare an explanation for this statement as they watch Highlighting the Role of Fertilizers, Crop Nutrition and Soil Health in Global Agriculture
  3. Discuss the video. Explain to students that they will be exploring water quality and the the health of an aquatic ecosystem.

Activity 1: Effect of Nutrients on Water Sources
What is the effect of added nutrients on water sources? What is the source of these added nutrients?

  1. Give each student or group of students one copy of Effect of Nutrients on Water Sources student handout.
  2. Instruct students to follow the lab instructions outlined on the handout. Explain that in this experiment, inorganic nutrients will be added to water collected from the environment
    and grown in the classroom under fluorescent lights or by a bright window.
  3. Refer to the Effect of Nutrients on Water Sources—Teacher Key to find options for differentiation in the classroom, answers to the reflection questions, and a rubric to evaluate the assessment. 
  4. Students should be able to summarize that water quality is negatively affected by excess nutrients. Some water sources are more affected than others due to depth and temperature.

Activity 2: Physical and Chemical Water Testing
How can we analyze the abiotic components of the stream in order to determine the stream's overall water quality?

  1. Give each student or group of students one copy of the Physical and Chemical Water Testing student handout.
  2. If possible, conduct these tests on site at the aquatic ecosystem to be tested.  If this is not possible, record the temperature and dissolved oxygen results at the time of collection for your students to use later for the most accurate results.
  3. While at the water site, collect water samples for the students to test in a sterile, wide-mouthed jar or container with a cap. The container should be filled completely with your water sample and capped to prevent the loss of dissolved gases. Test each sample as soon as possible or within one hour of collection.
    • Tip: Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) bottles will allow you to extend your water testing time frame. When possible, perform the temperature and dissolved oxygen (DO) at the monitoring site immediately after collecting the water sample.
  4. Use the following steps to collect the water samples:
    • Wear protective gloves. Rinse the bottle 2–3 times with the stream water (or other water source).
    • Hold the container near the bottom and plunge it (opening downward) below the water surface.
    • Turn the submerged container into the current and away from you.
    • Allow the water to flow into the container for 30 seconds.
    • Cap the full container while it is still submerged. Remove it from the river completely.
  5. The turbidity test is meant to be conducted in the LaMotte Low Cost Water Monitoring kit container. If possible, adhere the Secchi disk icon sticker to the container on the bottom 8-24 hours before testing slightly off-center.
  6. Prepare 1 water sample for each student testing group and a Lamotte Low Cost Water Monitoring kit to conduct the tests. Students will need the colored indicator cards to record the test results.
  7. Determine if you want the students to conduct all of the tests, or allow the students to determine the tests they feel are necessary to conduct in order to determine the health of the aquatic ecosystem.
  8. Remind students to carefully dispose of all reacted test samples by carefully flushing them down the drain with excess water. While in the field, reacted samples can be poured together into a waste container for later disposal. 
  9. Refer to the Physical and Chemical Water Testing—Teacher Key to find options for differentiation in the classroom, answers to the reflection questions, and a rubric to evaluate the assessment. 
  10. Students should be able to summarize the nutrient profile and the health of their local aquatic ecosystem. Students should be able to make connections between climate, land use, and biotic capacity of an aquatic ecosystem.

Activity 3: Biotic Sampling
How can the health of an aquatic ecosystem be determined by the macroinvertebrates present in the ecosystem?

  1. Give each student one copy of the Biotic Sampling student handout.
  2. While in class, watch How to Use a Kick-Net for a Stream Study for a demonstration of how to use a kick net. 
  3. While at the water site, instruct students to follow the instructions on their handout carefully to complete the investigation
  4. Refer to the Biotic Sampling—Teacher Key to find options for differentiation in the classroom, answers to the reflection questions, and a rubric to evaluate the assessment. 
  5. By the end of the activity, students should be able to determine the sensitivity of collected macroinvertebrates and the overall health of the aquatic ecosystem.

Activity 4: Water Quality Conclusion
How can the health of an aquatic ecosystem be determined by the biotic and abiotic factors present in the ecosystem? How can human impact be lessened to maintain or improve the water quality rating for an aquatic ecosystem?

  1. Give each student one copy of the Water Quality Conclusion student handout.
  2. Students should use the results of all of their water sampling tests to complete the handout.
  3. Refer to the Water Quality Conclusion—Teacher Key to find options for differentiation in the classroom, answers to the reflection questions, and a rubric to evaluate the assessment. 
  4. By the end of the activity, students should be able to connect water health to land use and human impact on local water systems. Students create remediation plans to improve the water health of aquatic ecosystems.

Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

After completing these activities, students should be able to summarize the following key concepts:

  • Converting a natural ecosystem to an agricultural ecosystem requires careful management to avoid polluting local watersheds.
  • Soil nutrients in excess can impact local watersheds around farms.
  • Aquatic ecosystems include a variety of biotic factors including macroinvertebrates, plants, and other living organisms.
Enriching Activities

This activity is an excerpt of the Water Quality unit created by Nourish the Future.


Nourish the Future

Organization Affiliation

Nourish the Future

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