Alkalinity refers to the capability of water to neutralize acid. This is really an expression of buffering capacity. A buffer is a solution to which an acid can be added without changing the concentration of available H+ ions (without changing the pH) appreciably. It essentially absorbs the excess H+ ions and protects the water body from fluctuations in pH. In most natural water bodies in Kentucky the buffering system is carbonate-bicarbonate (CO2HCO3 CO32-). The presence of calcium carbonate or other compounds such as magnesium carbonate contribute carbonate ions to the buffering system. Alkalinity is often related to hardness because the main source of alkalinity is usually from carbonate rocks (limestone) which are mostly CaCO3. If CaCO3 actually accounts for most of the alkalinity, hardness in CaCO3 is equal to alkalinity. Since hard water contains metal carbonates (mostly CaCO3) it is high in alkalinity. Conversely, unless carbonate is associated with sodium or potassium which don't contribute to hardness, soft water usually has low alkalinity and little buffering capacity. So, generally, soft water is much more susceptible to fluctuations in pH from acid rains or acid contamination.
Methodology: Alkalinity is an electrometric measurement which is performed by the computer aided titrimeter (CAT) and the pH electrode. A potentiometric titration is taken to an end-point reading of pH 4.5. The amount of acid required to reach a pH of 4.5 is expressed in milliliters. The calcium ions (CO3) neutralize the acid in this reaction, and show the buffering capacity of the sample. From the amount of acid used, a calculation will indicate the amount of carbonate (CO3) involved in the reaction. This then is expressed as mg of CaCO3/L even though actually part of the alkalinity may be contributed by MgCO3 , Na2CO3 or K2CO3.
Environmental Impact: Alkalinity is important for fish and aquatic life because it protects or buffers against rapid pH changes. Living organisms, especially aquatic life, function best in a pH range of 6.0 to 9.0. Alkalinity is a measure of how much acid can be added to a liquid without causing a large change in pH. Higher alkalinity levels in surface waters will buffer acid rain and other acid wastes and prevent pH changes that are harmful to aquatic life. See Table III in the discussion on pH.
Criteria: For protection of aquatic life the buffering capacity should be at least 20 mg/L. If alkalinity is naturally low, (less than 20 mg/L) there can be no greater than a 25% reduction in alkalinity.