Water Science School

FAQ

So, you say the water from your faucet smells like rotten eggs? Maybe you wonder how water gets to your house way up on that hilltop or would like to know why your pond is full of slimy green algae. Hopefully, this FAQ's page can supply you with some answers. 

What is the Earth's "water cycle?"

The water cycle , also known as the hydrologic cycle, describes the continuous movement of water as it makes a circuit from the oceans to the atmosphere to the Earth and on again. Most of Earth's water is in the oceans. The sun, which drives the water cycle, heats water in the oceans. Some of it evaporates as vapor into the air. Rising vapor cools...

How much of the Earth's water is stored in glaciers?

About 2.1% of all of Earth's water is frozen in glaciers. 97.2% is in the oceans and inland seas 2.1% is in glaciers 0.6% is in groundwater and soil moisture less than 1% is in the atmosphere less than 1% is in lakes and rivers less than 1% is in all living plants and animals. About three-quarters of Earth's freshwater is stored in glaciers...

How important is groundwater?

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...

What can cause our water to have an earthy odor or to smell like rotten eggs?

Naturally-occurring organic compounds are created when plant material decays in lakes and reservoirs. Those organic compounds frequently cause musty, earthy odors, especially toward the end of summer. The odors can be objectionable, but generally are not harmful to health. However, odors can be caused by other constituents as well, so you might...

What determines if a well will go dry?

A well is said to have gone dry when water levels drop below a pump intake. This does not mean that a dry well will never have water in it again, as the water level may come back through time as recharge increases. The water level in a well depends on a number of things, such as the depth of the well, the type (confined or unconfined) of aquifer...

Where can I get my well water tested?

Contact your county or state health department or check with your State Certification Officer for a list of state certified laboratories in your area that do water testing. The cost will vary, depending on the laboratory and the test(s), but people usually consider the cost to be reasonable.

We had a "100-year flood" two years in a row. How can that be?

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...

Why do the values for the 100-year flood seem to change with every flood?

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...

What does the term "stream stage" mean?

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...

Does "stage" tell you how much water is flowing in a 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...

Why are there sometimes differences between USGS and National Weather Service river stages?

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...

If the ground filters water, is groundwater always clean?

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...

Why does my drinking water look cloudy sometimes?

Once in a while you get a glass of water that looks cloudy; maybe milky is a better term. After a few seconds, it miraculously clears up! The cloudiness is due to tiny air bubbles in the water. Like any bubbles, the air rises to the top of the water and goes into the air, clearing up the water. The water in the pipes coming into your house might...

What can be causing our drinking water to have a reddish color?

Your water might be affected by iron, which is a commonly-occurring constituent of drinking water. Iron tends to add a rusty, reddish-brown (or sometimes yellow) color to water. If the color is more black than red, your water might contain a combination of iron and manganese. Both of these metals can cause staining of plumbing fixtures or laundry...

Where can I find information about my local drinking water supply?

The best way to learn about your local drinking water quality is to read the annual drinking water quality report/consumer confidence report that water suppliers now send out by July 1 of each year. The reports are often sent out with water bills, but they may be sent separately. The reports tell where drinking water comes from, what contaminants...

How much water is used by people in the United States?

Since 1950, the USGS has collected and analyzed water-use data for the United States and its Territories . That data is revised every 5 years. As of 2015, the United States uses 322 billion gallons of water per day (Bgal/day). The three largest water-use categories were irrigation (118 Bgal/day), thermoelectric power (133 Bgal/day), and public...

What is the difference between "mountain", "hill", and "peak"; "lake" and "pond"; or "river" and "creek?"

There are no official definitions for generic terms as applied to geographic features. Any existing definitions derive from the needs and applications of organizations using those geographic features. The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) database utilizes 63 broad categories of feature types defined solely to facilitate retrieval of...

What is a sinkhole?

A sinkhole is a depression in the ground that has no natural external surface drainage. Basically, this means that when it rains, all of the water stays inside the sinkhole and typically drains into the subsurface. Sinkholes are most common in what geologists call, “karst terrain.” These are regions where the types of rock below the land surface...

What is the difference between a sinkhole and land subsidence?

Sinkholes are just one of many forms of ground collapse, or subsidence. Land subsidence is a gradual settling or sudden sinking of the Earth’s surface owing to subsurface movement of earth materials. The principal causes of land subsidence are aquifer-system compaction, drainage of organic soils, underground mining, hydrocompaction, natural...

What is the difference between a sinkhole and a pothole?

A sinkhole is a closed natural depression in the ground surface caused by removal of material below the ground and either collapse or gradual subsidence of the surface into the resulting void. A pothole is usually a fairly small feature caused by failure of paving materials, usually associated with roads, parking lots, and airports. In the colder...