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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Glass of water
Water drawn from a well was once precipitation that fell onto Earth's surface. It seeped into the ground and, over time, occupied the porous space in some subsurface material. Big particles that are in surface streams, such as leaf chunks, will not be seen in groundwater. So, yes, big particles are filtered out by the ground, along with some...
Water well windmill
Groundwater, which is in aquifers below the surface of the Earth, is one of the Nation's most important natural resources. Groundwater is the source of about 37 percent of the water that county and city water departments supply to households and businesses (public supply). It provides drinking water for more than 90 percent of the rural population...
a graph of Groundwater flow patterns and the freshwater-saltwater transition zone in an idealized coastal aquifer
Groundwater is water that exists underground in saturated zones beneath the land surface. The upper surface of the saturated zone is called the water table. Contrary to popular belief, groundwater does not form underground rivers. It fills the pores and fractures in underground materials such as sand, gravel, and other rock, much the same way that...
Image: Flooding in Waverly, IA
The amount of water corresponding to a 100-year flood, a 500-year flood, or a 1,000-year flood is known as a "flood quantile". For instance, on a given river, the flood quantile corresponding to the 50-year flood might be 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and the flood quantile corresponding to the 100-year flood might be 15,000 cfs. The...
Image: Flooding in Finchfield, IA
The term “1,000-year flood” means that, statistically speaking, a flood of that magnitude (or greater) has a 1 in 1,000 chance of occurring in any given year. In terms of probability, the 1,000-year flood has a 0.1% chance of happening in any given year.   These statistical values are based on observed data.  
Historic photo of flooding in Hazard, KY
It comes down to a number of factors, including the pattern of movement of the rainstorm in each particular watershed, the conditions of the soil and plant matter in the watershed, and the timing of the rainstorm in one watershed versus other watersheds.   For example, if the ground is already saturated before a rainstorm, much of the rain will...
flood sign
Climate variability (dry cycles to wet cycles) and land-use change play a significant role, but there is a large amount of uncertainty around the flood quantile estimates (the value of discharge corresponding to the 100-year flood), particularly if there isn’t a long record of observed data at a stream location.   Learn more: Flood recurrence...
Poster: 100-Year Flood--It's All About Chance
The term "100-year flood" is used to describe the recurrence interval of floods. The 100-year recurrence interval means that a flood of that magnitude has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year. In other words, the chances that a river will flow as high as the 100-year flood stage this year is 1 in 100. Statistically, each year begins...
Soybeans showing the effects of drought near Navasota, TX
Rainfall in any form will provide some drought relief. A good analogy might be how medicine and illness relate to each other. A single dose of medicine can alleviate symptoms of illness, but it usually takes a sustained program of medication to cure an illness. Likewise, a single rainstorm will not break the drought, but it might provide temporary...
Screenshot of Waterwatch website drought page
To view the USGS streamflow information on drought, see the drought map on our WaterWatch site, which shows below-normal, 7-day average streamflow compared to historical streamflow for the United States. Links to additional maps and drought data are listed on our Drought website and the U.S. Drought Portal.
Stillwater Creek in drought conditions
The beginning of a drought is difficult to determine. Several weeks, months, or even years might pass before people know that a drought is occurring. The end of a drought can occur as gradually as it began. The first evidence of drought is usually seen in records of rainfall. Within a short period of time, the amount of moisture in soils can begin...
Image: Vegetation Drought
A drought is a period of drier-than-normal conditions that results in water-related problems. The amount of precipitation at a particular location varies from year to year, but over a period of years, the average amount is fairly constant. In the deserts of the Southwest, the average precipitation is less than 3 inches per year. In contrast, the...