More than a Century of USGS Water Quality Studies in National Parks

Release Date:

In celebration of the National Park Service Centennial, 1916-2016


Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey have investigated water quality in national parks for over 100 years, providing specialized information that helps park officials balance the often competing goals of preserving nature and broadening visitor experiences. The National Park Service manages many of our Nation’s most highly valued aquatic systems — iconic natural legacies that include portions of the Great Lakes and several large rivers, ocean and coastal zones, historical canals and reservoirs, high-elevation lakes and streams, geysers, springs, and wetlands.

Early Days

The USGS, established 1879, had begun systematic studies of water quality of springs, rivers, and lakes by 1880. The first known  investigation of the chemical quality of waters from a national park by USGS was made at Yellowstone National Park from 1883 to 1887. A series of 43 analyses were made of the geysers, hot springs, mud springs, cold springs, and surface waters found within the limits of the Yellowstone Park including Yellowstone Lake, the Firehole River, and Old Faithful Geyser. Pioneering USGS chemists F.A. Gooch and J.E. Whitfield analyzed the water samples. Yellowstone, the first national park, was established under President Grant in 1868.

Over 100 years ago another USGS-led water quality field survey in a national park was conducted at Crater Lake National Park (Oregon) in 1912. Crater Lake, the fifth oldest national park, was established in 1902, while the National Park Service was established later in 1916.

In August 1912, USGS scientists Walton Van Winkle and N. M. Finkbinder sampled Crater Lake from a depth of six feet about one mile from shore. They were well aware of the lake’s immense depth from an earlier survey. Van Winkle analyzed the chemistry of the lake water and was surprised by its slight acidity in spite of its alkaline geologic setting. He called this a “remarkable circumstance”.

The next year, the USGS was called upon to make surveys of water supplies and pollution sources at Glacier National Park (NP) in Montana; Yellowstone NP  in Montana and Wyoming; and Yosemite NP in California. Samples taken during the surveys by USGS scientist Richard B. Dole provided the superintendents of each of the parks with the information needed to identify dependable supplies of clean water for future lodges and concessions.

At Yellowstone, Dole’s advice likely prevented the alteration of vital underground water flows to Old Faithful Geyser. Dole suggested moving the planned location of a commercial bathhouse to a site farther away from Old Faithful, and at a lower elevation, so that water withdrawals would not affect the famous thermal feature.

USGS-NPS cooperation in the 21st century

Today, the USGS and the National Park Service (NPS) work together through the USGS–NPS Water-Quality Partnership to support a broad range of policy and management needs related to high-priority water-quality issues in national parks. The program was initiated in 1998 as part of the Clean Water Action Plan, a Presidential initiative to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

Partnership projects are developed jointly by the USGS and the NPS. Project selection is highly competitive, with an average of only eight new projects funded each year out of approximately 75 proposals. Project goals range from periodic stream monitoring to evaluating the effects visitor usage and other natural and human activities have on national park resources.

USGS then conducts the approved water quality studies and NPS uses the findings to guide policy and management actions aimed at protecting and improving water quality. Since 1998, the beginning of the partnership, 217 studies have been conducted in 119 NPS administered lands.

Samples of water quality success

At Denali National Park and Preserve (Alaska), 35 legacy mining operations were underway when a court-ordered injunction halted most of this activity in 1985. In the Kantishna Hills area, mining for gold, silver, lead, antimony, and zinc that began in 1903 had caused acid mine drainage and excessive sediment loads that severely degraded water quality and aquatic habitat. A USGS study completed in 2013 measured the effectiveness of specific management strategies to improve water quality in this area.

At Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota), nutrient enrichment has led to excessive algal growth in Kabetogama Lake. USGS–NPS partnership projects were initiated in 2008 and 2012 to examine nutrient loading to the lake and evaluate the effectiveness of water-management operations intended to improve water quality. The US-Canada International Joint Commission will use the findings of these studies to determine whether to maintain or modify rules established in 2000 that govern the operation of privately owned dams on the lake.

At Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks (California), the NPS was concerned that visitor activities in high-use areas of wilderness may be degrading water quality. Science-based information from a USGS study indicated that, while visitor use, including pack animals at current and projected levels, has some effects during runoff events, these effects do not occur at levels that represent a major threat to natural resources or human health.

At Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio), the U.S. EPA has named sections of the Cuyahoga River within the park as areas of concern for full body-contact recreation, such as swimming, canoeing, and scuba diving. Between 2004 and 2011, 50 percent of the samples collected by the USGS exceeded the relevant water-quality standard for bacteria. In 2012, a USGS-NPS partnership project installed instream water-quality sensors and developed a model to predict bacteria levels on the Cuyahoga River within the park. This stretch of the river is a favorite of recreational users who can now plan their activities from anywhere by checking online for predicted water-quality levels.

Learn more 

The Water-Quality Partnership for National Parks — U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service, 1998–2016
USGS Fact Sheet 2016-3041. Prepared in cooperation with the National Park Service.