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Cumulative uncertainty in measured streamflow and water quality data for small watersheds

January 1, 2006

The scientific community has not established an adequate understanding of the uncertainty inherent in measured water quality data, which is introduced by four procedural categories: streamflow measurement, sample collection, sample preservation/storage, and laboratory analysis. Although previous research has produced valuable information on relative differences in procedures within these categories, little information is available that compares the procedural categories or presents the cumulative uncertainty in resulting water quality data. As a result, quality control emphasis is often misdirected, and data uncertainty is typically either ignored or accounted for with an arbitrary margin of safety. Faced with the need for scientifically defensible estimates of data uncertainty to support water resource management, the objectives of this research were to: (1) compile selected published information on uncertainty related to measured streamflow and water quality data for small watersheds, (2) use a root mean square error propagation method to compare the uncertainty introduced by each procedural category, and (3) use the error propagation method to determine the cumulative probable uncertainty in measured streamflow, sediment, and nutrient data. Best case, typical, and worst case data quality scenarios were examined. Averaged across all constituents, the calculated cumulative probable uncertainty (%) contributed under typical scenarios ranged from 6% to 19% for streamflow measurement, from 4% to 48% for sample collection, from 2% to 16% for sample preservation/storage, and from 5% to 21% for laboratory analysis. Under typical conditions, errors in storm loads ranged from 8% to 104% for dissolved nutrients, from 8% to 110% for total N and P, and from 7% to 53% for TSS. Results indicated that uncertainty can increase substantially under poor measurement conditions and limited quality control effort. This research provides introductory scientific estimates of uncertainty in measured water quality data. The results and procedures presented should also assist modelers in quantifying the quality of calibration and evaluation data sets, determining model accuracy goals, and evaluating model performance.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2006
Title Cumulative uncertainty in measured streamflow and water quality data for small watersheds
DOI 10.13031/2013.20488
Authors R. D. Harmel, R.J. Cooper, R. M. Slade, R.L. Haney, J.G. Arnold
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Transactions of the ASABE
Series Number
Index ID 70030364
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization