Total Suspended Solids and water quality

One of the biggest sources of water pollution in Kentucky is suspended solids. When these suspended particles settle to the bottom of a water body, they become sediments. The terms "sediment" and "silt" are often used to refer to suspended solids. Suspended solids consist of an inorganic fraction (silts, clays, etc.) and an organic fraction (algae, zooplankton, bacteria, and detritus) that are carried along by water as it runs off the land. The inorganic portion is usually considerably higher than the organic. Both contribute to turbidity, or cloudiness of the water. Waters with high sediment loads are very obvious because of their "muddy" appearance. This is especially evident in rivers, where the force of moving water keeps the sediment particles suspended.

The geology and vegetation of a watershed affect the amount of suspended solids. If the watershed has steep slopes and is rocky with little plant life, top soil will wash into the waterway with every rain. On the other hand, if the watershed has lots of firmly rooted vegetation, it will act as a sponge to trap water and soil and thereby eliminate most erosion. Most suspended solids come from accelerated erosion from agricultural land, logging operations (especially where clear-cutting is practiced), surface mining, and construction sites. Another source of suspended solids is the resuspension of sediments which accompanies dredging that is undertaken to keep navigation channels open in larger rivers.

Methodology: Several methods may be employed to determine suspended solids or the turbidity which it causes. The method employed in this study determines total suspended solids (TSS). A well mixed sample is filtered through a preweighed glass filter. The filter is then dried in a drying oven and reweighed. The weight gain represents the total suspended solids. It is expressed in mg/L. Turbidity is measured using a turbidity meter and expressed in turbidity units. In deep waters, a secchi disk may be used to determine light penetration or transparency. A secchi disk is a weighted disk painted with alternating quarters of black and white. Recording the depth at which the disk disappears from view provides an estimation of the water's transparency.

Environmental Impact: Suspended solids can clog fish gills, either killing them or reducing their growth rate. They also reduce light penetration. This reduces the ability of algae to produce food and oxygen. When the water slows down, as when it enters a reservoir, the suspended sediment settles out and drops to the bottom, a process called siltation. This causes the water to clear, but as the silt or sediment settles it may change the bottom. The silt may smother bottom-dwelling organisms, cover breeding areas, and smother eggs.

Indirectly, the suspended solids affect other parameters such as temperature and dissolved oxygen. Because of the greater heat absorbency of the particulate matter, the surface water becomes warmer and this tends to stabilize the stratification (layering) in stream pools, embayments, and reservoirs. This, in turn, interferes with mixing, decreasing the dispersion of oxygen and nutrients to deeper layers.

Suspended solids interfere with effective drinking water treatment. High sediment loads interfere with coagulation, filtration, and disinfection. More chlorine is required to effectively disinfect turbid water. They also cause problems for industrial users. Suspended sediments also interfere with recreational use and aesthetic enjoyment of water. Poor visibility can be dangerous for swimming and diving. Siltation, or sediment deposition, eventually may close up channels or fill up the water body converting it into a wetland. A positive effect of the presence of suspended solids in water is that toxic chemicals such as pesticides and metals tend to adsorb to them or become complexed with them which makes the toxics less available to be absorbed by living organisms.

Criteria: There are no quantitative criteria for TSS; however, Kentucky Water Quality Standards for aquatic life state that suspended solids "shall not be changed to the extent that the indigenous aquatic community is adversely affected" and "the addition of settleable solids that may adversely alter the stream bottom is prohibited." The National Academy of Sciences has recommended that the concentration of TSS should not reduce light penetration by more than 10%. In a study in which TSS were increased to 80 mg/L, the macroinvertebrate population was decreased by 60%.

  • Back to Water Quality Parameters List
  • Back to River Assessment Monitoring Project Home Page
  • Back to Kentucky Water Watch Home Page
  • Back to Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet Home Page