Teach the Earth > > > Evaluation of watershed land-use changes and hydrologic impacts

Evaluation of watershed land-use changes and hydrologic impacts

Timothy Eaton
Queens College CUNY
Author Profile

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Apr 3, 2007


The USDA-NRCS TR55 method for calculating runoff discharge is used to compare the results of land-use change in a watershed. These data are then compared to a Darcy's Law estimate of groundwater discharge to a stream or estuary using a water-table map in the same watershed. Comparison and discussion of results provide opportunities to evaluate uncertainties and limitations of data and methods.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This exercise is designed for undergraduate students or beginning graduate students taking a course in hydrology or hydrogeology. The course requires students to have taken college physics and algebra, but not necessarily calculus.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must be familiar with concepts of area and volume, and be proficient with unit conversions. They must also have mastered water-table mapping and contouring skills.

How the activity is situated in the course

This exercise is designed to follow lecture material about rainfall, runoff and infiltration, water-table mapping and Darcy's Law.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

1. Better understand the relationship between land use and runoff or infiltration.
2. Develop and strengthen analytical and mathematical skills by quantifying volumes based on precipitation depths.
3. Recognize and compare differences in discharges over different time periods.
4. Provide experience in making empirical calculations that lay the foundation for eventual field data collection.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

1. Understand sources of uncertainty in quantifying hydrologic processes.
2. Evaluate the relative size of those uncertainties and effects on results.

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

This assignment is best presented in two lab periods to represent the "before" and "after" scenarios of land use and their impact on hydrology. It requires documentation in map and/or airphoto form of land use in a specific watershed at two times: historical and modern. Historical USGS topographic maps from the 19th century were used in this case, along with digital orthophotos for the modern-day scenario. Some means of quantifying subareas within the watershed is also needed, either using software (ArcGIS) or transparent overlays and boxcounting from a translucent grid would work.

For each of the sets of documentation: historical and modern, the students follow the USDA-NRCS TR55 empirical procedure to estimate event runoff depths and peak estimated discharge from the watershed. An area-weighted curve number (CN) is calculated based on tabulated categories of land use. Some judgment is involved in adapting the tabulated land use categories to the specific watershed used, and selecting an appropriate statistical average rainfall event to use. The sum of Darcy's Law calculations of discharge along streamtubes to a surface stream or estuary provides a groundwater discharge value over time for comparison. Each of these parts of the activity provides opportunities for the instructor to discuss uncertainties and sources of error.

Note that although software allowing TR-55 analysis exists, it is simpler and more instructive to have students use the paper method and forms in the manual.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Learning outcomes are based on the following:

1. Results and analysis in lab reports that correspond to these exercises. There is no "right answer," but all students' calculations should be similar. It is instructive to compare all results as a class to illustrate uncertainty in the calculations and method as a whole.
2. Ability of students, as evaluated during class exams, to recognize what controls infiltration and runoff in a watershed.
3. Ease with which students can recognize the significance of order-of-magnitude calculations and understand the usefulness but inherent limits of such analysis for future lab exercises.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Download teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

USDA-NRCS TR-55 Urban Hydrology for Small Watersheds manual

Historical USGS Maps for New England and NY from the UNH Library:

United States Digital Map Library (Rootsweb.com)

United States Geological Survey EarthExplorer

New TTE Logo Small

Hydrology/Hydrogeology resources from across Teach the Earth »

Water resources from across Teach the Earth »

Environmental Science resources from across Teach the Earth »

Environmental Science resources from Teach the Earth include:

Specialized collections including

or search