Streamflow monitoring in Wisconsin

Science Center Objects

Streamflow data are needed at many sites on a daily basis for forecasting flow conditions and flooding, water-management decisions, assessing water availability, managing water quality, and meeting legal requirements. The USGS has been measuring streamflow in Wisconsin since 1906 with nearly 1,000 active and discontinued gages.

Photo of a staff gage on a Wisconsin stream

Staff gages, like this one, are attached to fixed structures. Field crews visually read and record the water-level height (stage) of the stream periodically.

Information on the flow of rivers and streams is a vital national asset that safeguards lives, protects property, and ensures adequate water supplies for the future.

What is a streamgage?

If you have ever crossed a highway bridge and noticed a metal structure with an antenna by the side of it, you’ve probably seen a USGS streamgage. A streamgage contains instruments that measure and record the amount of water flowing in the river or stream. The USGS operates a network of more than 9,000 streamgages nationwide.

Most streamgages operate by measuring the elevation of the water in the river or stream and then converting the water elevation (called “stage”) to streamflow (“discharge”) by using a curve that relates the stage to a set of actual discharge measurements. The gage records the data and transmits it automatically to the USGS National Water Information System (NWIS). Gages can also collected other information, such was water chemistry parameters and temperature.

Learn more about how USGS streamgages work and the National Streamflow Information Program.

Streamflow measurements can also be made manually. Stream-height recording devices might be a staff gage (like a yardstick), a wire weight gage, or a vertical pipe gage, whose stage is visually observed and recorded. Another type of streamgage is one that only provides information on the highest flow since the gage was last visited. This type of streamgage is called a 'crest stage gage' (see below). Crest-stage gages are used to record peak stage during high-flow and flood events.

Why does the USGS collect streamflow data?

Streamflow data are needed at many sites on a daily basis for forecasting flow conditions and flooding, water-management decisions, assessing water availability, managing water quality, and meeting legal requirements. These activities require streamflow information at a given location for a specified time or period. These needs generally are best satisfied by operating a station to produce a continuous (or daily) record of flow.

Gage house at Wisconsin River streamgage 05404000

USGS streamgage 05404000 WISCONSIN RIVER NEAR WISCONSIN DELLS, WI is one of the older continuous-record streamgages  in Wisconsin. It has been recording water levels on the Wisconsin River since 1934. It is located in the Wisconsin Dells section of the Wisconsin River, a popular water-recreation destination, making it one of the most publicly visible streamgages in Wisconsin.

Some uses for streamflow data include:

  • Planning, designing, operating, and maintaining water management systems
  • Issuing flood warnings to protect lives and reduce property damage
  • Designing highways and bridges
  • Mapping floodplains
  • Monitoring environmental conditions and protecting aquatic habitats
  • Protecting water quality and regulating pollutant discharges
  • Evaluating the effects of climate change on hydrology and streamflow
  • Managing water rights and transboundary water issues
  • Allowing recreational boaters to monitor conditions

Learn more about the users and uses of USGS streamflow data.

 

Wisconsin streamflow data

The USGS has been measuring streamflow in Wisconsin since 1906.  We have nearly 1,000 active and discontinued streamgages in Wisconsin.

Real-time streamgages collect these measurements automatically every 15 minutes, but can collect data more frequently during times of flooding. Every 1 to 4 hours, the data is transmitted to the USGS. Daily summary data are generated and stored in the National Water Information System (NWIS) database. Real-time stream conditions data are available graphically through WaterWatch; the supporting data is available through the “Current Conditions” section in NWIS. The finalized daily data are also published through yearly Water Year Summaries (historically called Annual Water Data Reports).

Example NWIS graph of real-time streamflow monitoring

Example NWIS graph of real-time streamflow monitoring (in this case, discharge - including historical median information).