Oxygen available to aquatic organisms is found in the form of dissolved oxygen. Oxygen gas is dissolved in a stream through aeration, diffusion from the atmosphere, and photosynthesis of aquatic plants and algae. Plants and animals in the stream consume oxygen in order to produce energy through respiration. In a healthy stream, oxygen is replenished faster than it is used by aquatic organisms. In some streams, aerobic bacteria decompose such a large volume of organic material that oxygen is depleted from the stream faster than it is replaced. The resulting decrease in dissolved oxygen is known as the Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD).
When it rains, organic material found in the soil is transported in the rainwater to streams and rivers. Additional organic material accumulates in the stream when aquatic organisms die. Bacteria and other microorganisms decompose this organic material. In a healthy body of water, this process has only a slight impact on dissolved oxygen levels. It serves to release vital nutrients, such as nitrates and phosphates, which stimulate algae and aquatic plant growth. If the amount of decomposing organic material is too high, dissolved oxygen levels can be severely reduced. In a body of water with large amounts of decaying organic material the dissolved oxygen levels may drop by 90%—this would represent a high BOD. In a mountain stream with low levels of decaying organic material, the dissolved oxygen levels may drop by only 10% or 20%—a low BOD.
Organic materials, such as leaves, fallen trees, fish carcasses, and animal waste, end up in the water naturally and are important in the recycling of nutrients throughout the ecosystem. Organic materials that enter the water as a result of human impact can be considered sources of pollution.
- Measure the dissolved oxygen in a stream or lake using a Dissolved Oxygen Probe.
- Determine the BOD level for the stream or lake.