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Water Quality: Turbidity

Experiment #12 from Earth Science with Vernier


Turbidity is a measure of water’s lack of clarity. Water with high turbidity is cloudy, while water with low turbidity is clear. The cloudiness is produced by light reflecting off of particles in the water; therefore, the more particles in the water, the higher the turbidity.

Many factors can contribute to the turbidity of water. An increase in stream flow due to heavy rains or a decrease in stream-bank vegetation can speed up the process of soil erosion. This will add suspended particles, such as clay and silt, to the water.
Runoff of various types contains suspended solids that may add to the turbidity of a stream. Agricultural runoff often contains suspended soil particles. Other types of runoff include industrial wastes, water treatment plant effluent, and urban runoff from parking lots, roads, and rooftops.

Bottom-dwelling aquatic organisms, such as catfish, can contribute to the turbidity of the water by stirring up the sediment that has built up on the bottom of the stream. Organic matter such as plankton or decaying plant and animal matter that is suspended in the water can also increase the turbidity in a stream.

High turbidity will decrease the amount of sunlight able to penetrate the water, thereby decreasing the photosynthetic rate. Reduced clarity also makes the water less aesthetically pleasing. While this may not be harmful directly, it is certainly undesirable for many water uses. When the water is cloudy, sunlight will warm it more efficiently. This occurs because the suspended particles in the water absorb the sunlight, warming the surrounding water. This can lead to other problems associated with increased temperature levels.

While highly turbid water can be detrimental to an aquatic ecosystem, it is not correct to assume that clear water is always healthy. Slightly turbid water can be perfectly healthy, while clear water could contain unseen toxins or unhealthy levels of nutrients.

Turbidity is measured in Nephelometric Turbidity Units, NTU. According to the USGS, the turbidity of surface water is usually between 1 NTU and 50 NTU. Turbidity is often higher than this, however, especially after heavy rain when water levels are high. Turbidity can be lower than expected in still water because of the settling of suspended particles that might occur. The turbidity of some selected rivers are shown in Table 1. Water is visibly turbid at levels above 5 NTU. The standard for drinking water is 0.5 NTU to 1.0 NTU.


In this experiment, you will use a Turbidity Sensor to measure the turbidity of a water sample.

Sensors and Equipment

This experiment features the following sensors and equipment. Additional equipment may be required.

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This experiment is #12 of Earth Science with Vernier. The experiment in the book includes student instructions as well as instructor information for set up, helpful hints, and sample graphs and data.

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Earth Science with Vernier