USGS Program Tackles Complex Water Questions

USGS Program Tackles Complex Water Questions

The U.S. Geological Survey has chosen the Illinois River Basin as the next watershed to be studied by its scientists as part of a large-scale effort to better understand the nation’s water systems.

The Next Generation in Water Science

USGS scientist surveys water levels on the Delaware River while streamflow measurements are made by boat.

USGS scientist surveys water levels on the Delaware River while streamflow measurements are made by boat. These measurements help scientists understand the amount of water and constituents being transported by the river. 

Credit: Mario Martin-Alciati , USGS. 

The USGS is investing in a Next Generation Water Observing System, or NGWOS, to help answer today’s complicated water questions. The USGS is currently using NGWOS to study two watersheds: the Delaware River Basin was chosen as the pilot watershed, followed by the Upper Colorado River Basin. The Illinois River Basin will be the third and was chosen to better understand water availability in a Midwestern watershed. In time, the USGS plans to increase the number of watersheds to 10 across the country. Information from these basins will help to develop a better understanding of water systems across the country to improve predictions of water quantity and quality for the future.


Filling the Gaps To Tackle Critical Questions

Water-resource managers rely on USGS data to address water challenges involving too much, too little or poor quality water.

The USGS operates and maintains real-time monitoring networks that provide data on the nation’s water resources, including more than 11,300 streamgages that monitor surface-water flow and/or levels; 2,100 water-quality stations; 17,000 wells that monitor groundwater levels; and 1,000 precipitation stations.

However, the current monitoring networks – while providing data at critical locations – cover less than 1% of the nation’s streams and groundwater aquifers. The current reach of USGS monitoring networks was designed to fulfill past needs.

To fill these gaps, NGWOS will use sophisticated new monitoring capabilities resulting from recent advances in water science. NGWOS also brings together the knowledge and expertise of USGS scientists, resource managers and stakeholders to determine water information needs now and into the future.

A team of 4 USGS scientists drive a hole for installation of a shallow groundwater well.

A team of 4 USGS scientists drive a hole for installation of a shallow groundwater well. These wells help scientists understand the exchange of groundwater and surface water in the Delaware River Basin. Credit: Chris Gazoorian, USGS. 

Solving Problems Using Stakeholder Input

The data-collection plan in each watershed will be driven by national USGS mission priorities and informed by stakeholder information needs. Some examples of the challenging questions each study hopes to answer include:

In each watershed, data will be collected that can be used to provide state-of-the-art information related to floods, droughts and water availability. This information is critical to making informed water-management decisions to protect life and property.

Examining the Illinois Water Basin

The Illinois River Basin was chosen as the third watershed to examine because it consists of an extensive amount of urban and agricultural land uses that can help improve understanding of how nutrient sources, in combination with climate- and land-use change, may limit water availability.

The Illinois River Basin is estimated to be one of the largest geographic sources of nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico. Insights gained through study of this watershed will help inform nutrient-reduction efforts in Illinois and in the broader Mississippi River Basin.

Harmful algal bloom occurrences are commonplace in the Illinois River Basin and having a better understanding of the factors leading to these outbreaks can help inform solutions throughout the Midwestern U.S.

First Watershed: Preserving Water for NYC and Philadelphia

The Delaware River Basin provides water to big cities such as New York and Philadelphia. This was the first watershed selected for NGWOS and is helping scientists better understand other water basins in the Northeast region.

USGS water experts started working on the Delaware River Basin in 2018 by asking stakeholders what information they need to better manage water resources. Based on their feedback, close to 100 new monitoring stations were installed over the past two years to provide additional streamflow, temperature and salinity data.

“Reliable and accurate scientific data are essential to making informed decisions about river and reservoir management,” said Paul Rush, Deputy Commissioner for the Bureau of Water Supply, New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

Examining Water in the West

Software-defined radar integrated on a small, unmanned aircraft system used to measure snow depth remotely on Cameron Peak, CO

Software-defined radar integrated on a small, unmanned aircraft system used to measure snow depth remotely on Cameron Pass, Colorado. 
Credit: John Fulton, USGS. 

The entire Colorado River Basin provides water for more than 40 million people in seven states and nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland across the western U.S. and Mexico. Several major cities and urban areas rely on water from the basin including Denver, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. The Upper Colorado River Basin supplies about 90% of the water for the entire Colorado River Basin with about 85% of the river flow originating as snowmelt from about 15% of the basin at the highest altitudes. The Lower Basin is arid and depends upon managed use of the Colorado River system to make the surrounding land habitable and productive. 

The UCRB study started this year and is still in the early planning stages. Water availability in the UCRB is dominated by an annual spring melt and runoff of winter snowpack from the surrounding high-elevation mountains. Understanding snow accumulation and melt processes in this basin will improve water-availability estimates for downstream water users and will provide information transferable to other snowmelt-dominated watersheds in the western U.S. 

“New monitoring technology is essential to addressing many issues associated with our annual water balance in the Upper Colorado River Basin,” said Dave “DK” Kanzer, Deputy Chief Engineer at Colorado River Water Conservation District.

As Needs Change, Plans Change

NGWOS plans are informed by stakeholder input and USGS scientists are working with external partners to develop data-collection plans that meet multiple objectives. This collaboration will allow for an improved understanding of processes and more accurate water predictions to ensure stakeholders are getting the water information needed for informed decision making.

To learn more, visit the USGS NGWOS website.