Treat Water Well

Water is essential to living. When water is polluted naturally, accidentally or on purpose, it must be treated and restored for consumption and beneficial use. The Chesapeake Bay provides a model of individuals, organizations and government collaborating to clean up water for the common good.  
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Not only is 60% of the human body composed of water, humans need water to survive. Doctors say we can survive several weeks without food, but only days without water. This curriculum guide focuses on water quality and safety.

 Whether brushing their teeth, drinking one of six daily glasses of water, watching water enter a drain or washing the family car, students of all ages need to think about the quality of water and the impact humans make on its pollution. Washington Post articles, EPA resources and suggested tours, activities and research enrich students’ emersion into clean water.

Students review the water cycle and study the water treatment process. They meet a riverkeeper  and consider other careers. They analyze efforts to clean up the Cheasapeake Bay watershed and offer their own suggestions. No matter where we live — urban, suburban, or rural areas — we would all benefit to treat water well.


January 2013

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed
Resource Graphic 

Develop Vocabulary
Ecology, Environmental Science, Government, Reading

Sixteen terms associated with water quality and treatment are defined for classroom use in “In the Know.”  Select the terms your students need to know when reading texts. Be sure they can use them in their discussion of and writing about water-related issues.

Many acronyms are used to denote organizations, agencies, practices and approaches involved in water quality and safety. Review “More Than Letters” for some of these terms. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides an informational graphic and activity to introduce young students to the water treatment process. Teachers might use this interactive graphic to illustrate vocabulary. This is one of many resources provided by the EPA for elementary to adult education

Make Connections
Biology, Ecology, Environmental Science, Reading

It is necessary for students to understand how communities deal with their water supply and pollution. Begin this lesson with questions such as the following:

• When you flush your toilet, where does the content go?

• How does our community deal with sewer water?

Teachers are provided the activity sheet “How We Clean Polluted Water.” Before giving the handout, teachers may wish to cover “disinfect,” “organic,” “inorganic solid,” “polluted or unclean water,” and other terms related to the water treatment process.

For an introduction to landfills, watch the Discovery video “Really Big Things: America’s Landfills." Teachers of older students may wish to refer to the EPA landfills website for government expectations.

Using the six steps, “How We Clean Polluted Water,” students can explore the processes used at the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest of its kind, to treat the polluted water of the D.C. region. Use this specific example to introduce the basic process. Teachers of younger students would find the Fairfax Water video, "The Full Treatment," helpful.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides an informational graphic and activity to introduce young students to the water treatment process. The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority provides an online graphic and summary of the treatment process that is more detailed.

In understanding how unclean water is processed, students may begin to understand why citizens may want to take greater care in preventing pollution in the first place. Students will use the steps in "How We Clean Polluted Water," the handout included in this guide, to follow water from when it arrives at the plant for treatment. 

After this activity, students will be able to answer these questions:

• Where does water that goes down the drain go?

• What happens to water at Blue Plains and other water treatment facilities?

• What are microbes? Organic materials? How are microbes used in water treatment?

• How do water treatment centers handle plastic materials?

• Why does water coming from my kitchen faucet sometimes smell like chlorine?


Find the Order

Art, Biology, Environmental Science, Reading, Science

Before this sequencing activity is given, students need to understand the term “process” and have been given the introduction to the process of treating polluted water. This assignment may also be combined with “Making Connections” suggested activity in this curriculum guide.

Steps in the Process” is a hands-on activity that provides information about water’s journey through a treatment facility. Students are to put the pieces in the correct order of moving from entry of polluted water in the plant through removal of inorganic pollutants and treatment of organic pollutants to release of clean water into the river. Students are to illustrate each step. The last step is to place the pieces in the correct order of treatment.

Older students could be asked to add more details about each step as well as to illustrate the steps and analyze the impact of water treatment on a community.

Use "How We Clean Polluted Water" in this curriculum guide for the correct order. This activity could be used as a quiz to determine students’ understanding of the water treatment process.


Research the Issues
Biology, Ecology, Environmental Science

Although people can live a few weeks without food, they can live only days without water. Discuss with students the importance of clean water. In what ways do we daily impact the quality of water in our homes, schools and offices?

We treat water to purify and make it useable for many purposes. This is not new. For thousands of years civilizations have been boiling, filtering and treating water to get clean drinking water.

Questions can lead to individual research projects. Here is a beginning:

• When you water your lawn or when rainwater runs off your yard into the street, how is water quality affected?

• What happens to river water that is near cattle, sheep and chicken ranches?  When surface water runoff takes place?

• How are fish influenced by surface water runoff and other forms of pollution?

• Have students noticed garbage in the street during a rainstorm? It washes into the sewer and disappears. But does it really disappear?

• Plastics are placed in landfills? Is there a better answer to managing this waste?

• What methods are used to treat point and nonpoint source pollution? 

• Lakes and reservoirs are a major water resource as well as a component of the food web. Why and how can lakeshores be protected

In addition to books and online resources, many local organizations have knowledgeable individuals who can be interviewed. Virginia students pursuing science projects can apply to work in the Fairfax Water water quality lab with a trained analyst.


Water Quality and Safety

Clean the Chesapeake Bay
Biology, Ecology, Environmental Science, Journalism, Reading

The Chesapeake Bay, Potomac and Anacostia rivers were a marvel to early explorers and original settlers. They provided food, transportation and beauty. Today the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed provide a case study of environmental and political decisions, and the need for private, public and government actions.

Teachers are encouraged to review two previous Washington Post curriculum guides for background information, resources and activities: Our First Families and The Chesapeake Bay. The latter guide includes two especially relevant resources — “A Revitalized Chesapeake May Be Decades Away” and “A Clean Bay Behind Schedule.”

With students, locate the Chesapeake Bay, Chesapeake Bay watershed, Potomac River and Anacostia River on a map. Discuss with students the importance of water in these six states and D.C.

Read “What Would It Take to Clean Up the Bay by 2010?” Give students the discussion questions, “A Clean Chesapeake Bay by 2010?”

Post writer Darryl Fears covers the 2012 State of the Bay report. Read “Chesapeake Bay's health improving a little, study says.” This January 3, 2013, story gives the latest update to the 2007 article. Summarize the article. Is the story of the Bay’s health more or less positive than in 2007?


Compare and Contrast the Chesapeake
Art, Biology, Career Education, Earth Science, Environmental Science, Technology

The Washington Post’s artist/writer Patterson Clark created the print and online Chesapeake Bay illustration/informational graphic. Clark presents the problems and solutions that must be faced if the Chesapeake is to meet goals to clean it. Teachers may use the online graphic or the four pages in the Chesapeake resource. 

“The Chesapeake Bay: Problems and Solutions” can be used to guide viewing of the informational graphic. Responses under COLOR should note the muted tones that cast a pall over the environment. On the Solutions side, the colors are vibrant and alive.

 Under ILLUSTRATION, students should note the parallel vertical halves which mirror each other. The Problems side provides examples of pollution in action — spewing coal-fired stacks, grazing cattle near and in streams. Locate exhaust, surface run-off and algae build-up. Find the mirror of each Problem in the Solutions side. For example, push lawn mowers and bicycles rather than exhaust producers.

The typeface is clean and the same on both sides to unify the visual impact. Yet there are differences. The introduction of Problems gives historic perspective while the Solutions side provides data. The bullets on the left side are replaced with plus (+) icons.

After students have read the text, discuss the concepts. Which changes might they be able to make? What career paths might they take to work to improve the Chesapeake Bay? 


Be a Riverkeeper
Career Education, Ecology, Environmental Science

Small farms, especially those upriver, need to practice Best Management Practices. The Potomac Riverkeeper suggests three changes that can make a difference in water quality:

• Prevent cattle from using the river as a restroom.

• Do not feed cattle on the banks of rivers and streams.

• Plant a buffer to catch rainwater that carries animal waste, dirt, fertilizers and pesticides into the river during rain storms.

Discuss these three practices. How can each help to keep rivers cleaner? What additional suggestions would students make to small farm owners?

The job of a riverkeeper is involved in these situations and more. Read “Potomac losing a guiding light.” Darryl Fears profiles Potomac riverkeeper Ed Merrifield. The questions in “A Riverkeeper Who Is a Guiding Light” can guide reading and discussion. 


Catch a Carp?
Art, Environmental Science, Journalism, Mathematics

In “On Anacostia, some don’t catch tainted-fish warning,” a December 17, 2012, Post article, writer Darryl Fears reports on a recent study, “Addressing the Risk: Understanding and Changing Anglers’ Attitudes about the Dangers of Consuming Anacostia River Fish.” Before giving students this article to read, teachers might locate the Anacostia River on a map.

Be sure students know the terms used by Fears. These include “angler,” “bottom-feed,” “toxic,” “cancerous,” “consumption,” “lesions” and “contaminated.”

After reading “On Anacostia, some don’t catch tainted-fish warning,” students should discuss the article.  In addition to study questions, “Warning: Catch and Release” provides math application and an art assignment.

Read About Clean Water

Create a Bookmark
Art, Ecology, Reading, Technology 

Help to communicate information gained through research and reading. Create a bookmark. The size of the bookmark can be specified by teachers or decided by students. The color and typography should help to communicate the information.

Students should be assigned to begin the statement on the bookmark: “5 Things That You Can do to ….” Students may use calligraphy or design the bookmark on a computer to apply technology skills.

Teachers could laminate the bookmarks and make them part of a display case. Afterwards, students could retain the bookmarks or give to a parent or guardian.


Take a Tour
Ecology, Environmental Science,  Journalism, Photography

Learn about water treatment and waste management through observation. In addition to virtual tours, some facilities provide first-hand experience for student groups.

Take a tour of Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant to see how they deal with water in the D.C. area. More than 370 million gallons of raw sewage from the metropolitan area — Montgomery and Prince George’s in Maryland and Fairfax and Loudoun in Virginia — as well as D.C. are treated daily. Blue Plains is where all this polluted water is collected. Before taking a tour, students can be introduced to the treatment process with a virtual tour

The Loudoun County Solid Waste Management Facility offers tours for student groups in Virginia.

In Prince George’s County, Md., tours of the Materials Recycling Facility can be arranged by calling (301) 499-1707. Arrange a tour of Prince George’s County Yard Waste Composting Facility by calling (888) 214-8687.

Take photographs of the operations as well as of your group during the tour. Write an article for your student publication, class newsletter or school website to inform your community.


Talk Trash
Ecology, Environmental Science, Journalism, Media Arts

Research worst and best practices in landfills and waste management. Include in the research the influence of landfills on groundwater and air quality. Below are five areas to begin research.

Fuel from trash 

Landfills — dry tomb landfill, bioreactor landfill  

Toxic waste  

Waste management 

• Produce power with a methane digester

After completing research, hold a panel discussion, prepare a podcast or hold a mock radio interview.


Invent a Biodegradable Product
Art, Science, Technology

Begin discussion at the bathroom sink. How often do students use their toothbrushes daily? What do they do with their worn out toothbrushes? What happens to the plastic toothbrush? View an alternative, biodegradable option.

After generating ideas for a “greener” toothbrush, list other products used in our daily life. How could these items be modified to lower the amount of inorganic material going into landfills?

Students could be grouped to create design teams. Each team brainstorms a biodegradable product; materials, shape, function and disposal need to be included. Sketch the new product.

In The Know 
 Aquifier  Pores between sand, clay and rock formations. Ground water moves through aquifers; many communities get their drinking water from aquifiers.




Nutrient-rich organic materials resulting from the treatment of sewage sludge. Only biosolids that meet the most stringent state and federal standards can be approved for use as a fertilizer.

Disinfection Chlorine or other disinfection method is added to water to kill any bacteria or microorganisms

A substance (manure or a chemical mixture) used to make soil more fertile or productive




Water located under ground, usually requiring less treatment than water from lakes, rivers and streams



Manmade materials that will not be broken down with microbes; not composed of organic matter


A method of solid waste disposal in which refuse is buried between layers of dirt so as to fill in or reclaim low-lying ground; trash and garbage disposal by burying


Microscopic organism, esp. a bacterium causing disease or fermentation

Nonpoint source   

Other than point source of pollution, such as agricultural storm water discharges and return flows from irrigated agriculture, rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the ground, motor oil; the U.S.’s largest water quality problem

Organic Relating to or derived from living organisms
Point source         

EPA defines as any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, roller stock, concentrated animal feeding operation or vessel from which pollutants are or may be discharged. 


Water flow or drainage; When water does not evaporate or get absorbed or infiltrated in the soil, it runs off surfaces. Flooding can occur with surface water runoff.


Semisolid material resulting from sewage treatment (also biosolid); mud, mire, ooze covering the ground or forming a deposit

Waste                 Material left behind by microbes; garbage, rubbish, excrement
Waste Management 

The collection, transportation and disposal of garbage, sewage, and other waste products

Wastewater Any water that has been adversely affected in quality by anthropogenic influence. It comprises liquid waste from residences, commerce, industry and agriculture.  

ANSWERS. A Clean Chesapeake Bay By 2010?

1. Through quoting sources, Fahrenthold indicates that defining the problem and defining the solution have been completed.

2. Manure, lawn fertilizer, human waste were found to be greater pollutants than large industries.

3. Clean up the bay’s water, fix its oyster population and beds of underwater grass and improve other environmental indicators.

4. Maryland passed a “flush tax,” a surcharge on water bills to pay for cleaning up the state’s sewage plants and farm fields. The bay’s rockfish population has continued its remarkable comeback, which began in the 1980s. Small strips of forest, designed to filter runoff, have been planted alongside 5,000 miles of streams.

5. Farmers can implement measures to prevent soil, manure and fertilizer from washing into streams.

6. Homeowners and sewage facilities need to replace, or at minimum, upgrade their septic systems.

7. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program was not doing enough to coordinate efforts of groups in the watershed.

8. The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority became DC Water in 2010. Recognizing that the aging water and sewer infrastructure needed major renovations, its finances were removed from the District’s overall budget. User fees, grants and the sale of revenue bonds now fund all improvements. See “Sewer System Improvements” [] for structural improvements to reduce sewer overflows and improve pipes. Select “Environment” and view Chesapeake Bay [] for nitrogen reduction and other efforts.

9. In 2012 rockfish, forested buffers and crabs received highest ratings. Five indicators improved, seven stayed the same and only one declined (underwater grasses).

10. Answers will vary.


ANSWERS. Tainted-fish Warning

1. The Anacostia Watershed Society, Anacostia Riverkeeper, and other environmental groups. The study is titled: “Addressing the Risk: Understanding and Changing Anglers’ Attitudes about the Dangers of Consuming Anacostia River Fish.”

2. Eleven anglers were interviewed. Sixty-five percent often caught catfish. Seventy-four percent of anglers eat at least part of their catch.

3. Graphs should indicate that more than two-thirds were black, 18 percent Latino and 8 percent Asian. Sixty-two percent had no more than a high school or equivalent diploma. Twenty-five percent had not completed high school.

4. Pollution sources include the Navy Yard, Washington Gas Light Co., landfill, car exhaust, chunks of pavement and crankcase oil.

5. The Anacostia River is contaminated with toxins and bacteria.

6. Mainly through seeking food in the muck at the bottom of the river.

7. Pinkney indicates the fish are full of PCBs and other cancer-causing chemicals. Yunger says, “We can’t say eating catfish out of the river causes cancer.” She continues, “And we know that eating it over a long time can make you sick.”

8. Many anglers do not read English or were born in countries where fishing is a main source of food. Others have eaten the fish and not become ill. Others believe that soaking and cooking removes the danger.

9. Responses will vary.

10. Answers will vary.

District of Columbia Public Schools Academic Content Standards 

Biology. Students should understand the effects of Pollution and other Environmental challenges and their longer term consequences. Specifically students should be able to:

B.19.1. Investigate and describe how point and nonpoint source pollution can affect the health of a bay’s watershed and wetlands.

B.19.2. Assess the method for monitoring and safeguarding water quality, including local waterways such as the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, and know that macroinvertebrates can be early warning signs of decreasing water quality.


Environmental Science. Water is continually being recycled by the hydrologic cycle through the watersheds, oceans, and the atmosphere by processes such as evaporation, condensation, precipitation runoff, and infiltration. The life-giving cycle is continually and increasingly impacted by human affairs. (E.6. Broad Concept) As a basic for understanding this concept
1. Compare and contrast the processes of the hydrologic cycle, including evaporation, condensation, precipitation, surface runoff and groundwater percolation, infiltration, and transpiration.

5. Describe the causes of, and the efforts to control, erosion in the Chesapeake Bay.

6. Investigate and describe how point and nonpoint source pollution can affect the health of a bay’s watershed and wetlands.


Environmental Science: Environmental quality is linked to natural and human-induced hazards, and the ability of science and technology to meet local, national, and global challenges. As a basis for understanding this concept,

  1. Differentiate between natural pollution and pollution caused by humans, and give examples of each.

  2. Describe sources of air and water pollution, and explain how air and water quality impact wildlife, vegetation, and human health.

  3. Describe the historical and current methods of water management and recycling, including the waste treatment practices of landfills, incineration, reuse-recycle, and source reduction.

    7. Recognize and describe important legislation enacted to protect environmental quality, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. (E.8)


District of Columbia Academic Content Standards Online 

Maryland Academic Content Standards 

Environmental Science: Recognize and explain that decisions influencing the use of natural resources may have benefits, drawbacks, unexpected consequences, and tradeoffs. (Standard 6, Topic B, Indicator)

Environmental Science: Recognize and describe that consequences may occur when Earth’s natural resources are used.

  1. Explain how human activities may have positive consequences on the natural environment.

• Recycling centers

• Native plantings

• Good farming practice

  1. Explain how human activities may have a negative consequence on the natural environment.

• Damage or destruction done to habitats

• Air, water,  and land pollution

c. Identify and describe that an environmental issue affects individual people and groups of people differently. (Standard 6, Indicator 2, Objectives)


Maryland Academic Content Standards online 

Virginia Academic Content Standards 


Earth Science: The student will investigate and understand that oceans are complex, interactive physical, chemical, and biological systems and are subject to long- and short-term variations. Key concepts include

a)     physical and chemical changes related to tides, waves, currents, sea level and ice cap variations, upwelling and salinity variations;

e) economic and public policy issues concerning the oceans and the coastal zone including the Chesapeake Bay. (ES.10)


Biology: The student will investigate and understand dynamic equilibria within populations, communities, and ecosystems. Key concepts include

d) the effects of natural events and human activities on ecosystems; and

e) analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems. (BIO.8)


Life Science: The student will investigate and understand the relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity. Key concepts include

b)    change in habitat size, quality or structure;

e) environmental issues. (LS.11)


Virginia Academic Content Standards online 

Common Core Standards 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy. Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text. (RI.8.1)

CCSS.ELA-Literacy. Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6–8 texts and topics. (RST.6-8.4)

CCSS.ELA-Literacy. By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend science/technical texts; in the grades 6–8 text complexity band independently and proficiently. (RST.6-8.10)