Surf Your Watershed: An Investigation of Discharge and Water Quality Impairments using EPA's watershed webpages

Tarin Weiss, Westfield State University

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This activity introduces students to the EPA's Surf Your Watershed website as they investigate a local waterway of their choice. The assignment guides students to analyze data about the waterway's current and historical discharge rates and impairments to water quality.

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The activity is appropriate for introductory and 200 level students as they begin to learn to learn basic hydrology and/or investigate specific waterways more deeply.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must be comfortable with exploring multiple tabs in a website and how to search and interpret basic science explanations related to water quality. They also must understand how to read/interpret maps and graphs.

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity accompanies and enhances focused learning about watersheds and discharge rates of streams/rivers. Students may, before or after the activity, identify the watershed of their school and its main waterways and conduct discharge and basic water quality measurements on a local stream or river. The activity also serves as a jumping off point for students' more in-depth investigation of a waterway they frequent.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

At the end of this activity,

  • students should know how to use the EPA Surf Your Watershed website to retrieve current data on discharge and water quality for a particular waterway.
  • students should also understand the meaning of the following terms/concepts:




peak streamflow

water quality impairments

types of impairments

  • students should successfully research a water quality impairment and hypothesize about its source based on mini-research.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

This activity requires students to interpret, compare, and summarize data and information, and to evaluate findings in order to hypothesize about the source(s) of impairments to water quality.

Other skills goals for this activity

This activity requires students to work independently and to grapple with information that may be new to them.

Description and Teaching Materials

Student Handout for Surf Your Watershed Lab (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 31kB May4 12)

Students should begin this activity with a basic understanding of what a watershed is and how/why surface water and/or groundwater becomes polluted. The instructor should review the activity with students and show them how to access and begin using the EPA Surf Your Watershed website. It takes students 45-75 minutes to complete the activity.

The activity itself requires each student to have access to the Internet.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Some students have difficulty getting started on the activity because they are not comfortable following a set of directions and/or interpreting a watershed map that covers where they live. I choose to send students out of class to work on the activity at a location of their choice, but am on hand to answer questions. I find that if I am not nearby they often solve problems on their own.

Student responses related to explaining a specific impairment and hypothesizing its source are sometimes incomplete. Remind students to name, describe, and explain the general origin of the impairment they have chosen to investigate. Urge students to add a map of the area and to identify the contamination source in their hypothesis.


Students turn in the completed activity hand-out. Student questions (the final question on the hand-out) are explored in a variety of ways; as a class discussion, individually with the instructor, and/or through further research by the student.

References and Resources

What is a watershed?

Sources of Water Quality Impairments:

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