Frequently Asked Questions

Water

The USGS monitors and studies a wide range of water resources and water conditions, including streamflow, groundwater, water quality, and water use and availability.

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Looking down and across the Great Salt Lake
The salinity of Great Salt Lake is measured by taking specific gravity and temperature measurements and comparing them to standardized values reported in a table. Specific gravity is measured in the field by testing a water sample with a device very similar to a battery or antifreeze tester. Learn more: Great Salt Lake, Utah
Crop dusting is one technique used to spread pesticides on agricultural lands in the Albemarle Sound region.
Pesticide use in the United States has increased because not only must we supply our exploding population with food, but crops and food are also grown for export to other countries. The United States has become the largest producer of food products in the world, partly owing to our use of modern chemicals (pesticides) to control the insects, weeds...
Map of water hardness in the United States, 1975
See our national map of hardness in surface water. Hardness data (reflecting mostly calcium, plus a little magnesium) for individual drinking-water suppliers is at the EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water website. It is important to note that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not set a legal limit or standard for hardness...
WaterAlert - An explanation
Yes! The USGS offers two services: WaterAlert - automated emails or text messages are sent to you whenever certain parameters (that you define) are exceeded at one of our gaging stations. WaterNow - Send an email or text message to WaterNow@usgs.gov containing the USGS Site Number of the gage you want to query (optionally add parameter codes to...
USGS Embudo Personnel
The spelling of “gage” is part of our very rich USGS history.  In 1888, USGS Director John Wesley Powell met a very forward-thinking graduate student named Frederick Haynes Newell. Powell was so impressed that he made Newell the first full-time appointee to the new Irrigation Survey, which was created to investigate the potential for dams and...
Tennessee FloodWatch Infographic
River forecasts (flood forecasts) are made by the National Weather Service River Forecast Centers and released through local Weather Service Offices. The NOAA website has a map showing the location of the forecast centers, their areas of responsibility, and the location of the gages they use. The vast majority of current streamflow data used for...
Photo of a staff gage on a Wisconsin stream
Not directly. You cannot say that because a stream rises (doubles) from a 10-foot stage to a 20-foot stage that the amount of flowing water also doubles. Think of a cereal bowl with a rounded bottom. Pour one inch of milk in it. It doesn't take much milk to make it up to the one inch level because the bowl is at its narrowest near the bottom. Now...
Large ruler-like instrument under a bridge standing up in the river water
  Stream stage is an important concept when analyzing how much water is moving in a stream at any given moment. "Stage" is the water level above some arbitrary point in the river and is commonly measured in feet. For example, on a normal day when no rain has fallen for a while, a river might have a stage of 2 feet. If a big storm hits, the river...
Image: Souris River Streamgage
At some USGS stream-gage installations, NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) maintains a separate stage sensor that is serviced by NWS technicians. Calibration of any sensing device can occasionally drift from a "true" value, so there might be differences between USGS and NWS data reports. USGS personnel visit installations on an interval of 6...
Diagram showing the stream stage (height) and streamflow (discharge) relation
In order to convert water height (or “stage”, usually expressed as feet) into a volume of water (or “discharge”, usually expressed as cubic feet per second), USGS hydrographers must establish a relationship between them. This stage-discharge relationship is called a rating curve. It’s developed by making frequent direct discharge measurements at...
Image of real-time data map sites for NC portion of Roanoke River watershed
Real-time USGS streamflow data are PROVISIONAL, meaning that the data have not been reviewed or edited. These data might be subject to significant change and are not official until reviewed and approved by the USGS. Real-time streamflow data can be affected by: backwater from ice or debris such as log jams algae and aquatic growth in the stream...
Example NWIS graph of real-time streamflow monitoring
There can be occasional equipment or database problems where erroneous data are reported for short periods of time until corrections can be made. This is why it is important to look at a record of streamflow (like the 7-day hydrograph plots) rather than a single point in time. However, most of the time the USGS has a high level of confidence in...