Exploring USGS Peak Streamflow Data in the Classroom

Access real-time streamflow data at the USGS Water Resources Homepage
This webpage was create for SERC by Heather Rissler
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The Dataset

This real-time raw and processed streamflow data from over 7000 stream gauges nationwide is from the United States Geological Survey. The data are presented in a variety of formats including graphs, tables, WATSTORE formatted files, and tab-delimited files.

Use and Relevance

Scientists use streamflow data to understand natural processes such as flooding and drought and to disseminate knowledge of surface water conditions to diverse sectors including agriculture and recreation industries.

Use in Teaching

This dataset can be used to teach the following topics and skills about hydrology and the hydrosphere:


  • Hydrologic cycle
  • Surface water hydrology
  • Streamflow (discharge)
  • Floods


  • Creating graphs from raw data
  • Creating graphs and visualizations that represent temporal changes in stream flow
  • Understand the relationship between gage height and streamflow
  • Combining multiple datasets to pose new questions
  • Creating visualizations to represent the relationship between streamflow and precipitation

Exploring the Data

Data Type and Presentation

Data (including streamflow in cubic feet per cm, gage height, and water quality data) are given in both raw and processed form. Raw data can be downloaded as a table, tab delineated text file, or WATSTOR file. Processed data are presented in graphical form as a GIF file. The site contains a guide detailing data presentation formats.

Accessing the Data

Real-time data provides a map linking to current data for daily streamflow from the 7,000 monitored rivers. Data for a specific site, such as the James River can be downloaded as an HTML table, tab-separated text (that can be imported into Excel for generating graphs and performing linear regressions), a WATSTORE file, or as a graph (GIF image). Raw and processed data available for individual rivers are indexed as a pull down menu and include:
  1. Real-time (includes streamflow and gage height data)
  2. Recent daily (includes mean and median stream flow data for up to 730 days)
  3. Surface water
    • Daily streamflow (provides daily means; user chooses date limitations)
    • Streamflow statistics (provides daily, monthly, and annual means from 1937 through 2004)
    • Peak flow (provides annual peak streamflow from 1937 through 2004)
  4. Water quality (provides partial data on nutrients, major inorganics, minor and trace inorganics, and physical property of discrete water samples taken from 1947 through 1969

Manipulating Data and Creating Visualizations

One way that students can process the data is to create graphs from raw data (provided in HTML tabular format and tab delineated text files) using a spreadsheet application such as Excel. Graphs could be used to visualize streamflow temporally and spatially and to display the relationship between gage height and streamflow. This dataset could be combined with precipitation datasets to create graphical representations of streamflow-precipitation relationships.

Tools for Data Manipulation

  • The USGS site does not provide tools for data manipulation. Raw data can be downloaded and imported into a spreadsheet application such as Excel for further processing. The Starting Point site provides a tutorial for using Excel.
  • Surf your Watershed: An example from Integrating Research and Education that guides users through the EPA's Surf your Watershed tool, which incorporates data from multiple sites, including USGS streamflow data.

About the Data

Collection Methods

Collection methods have varied historically. The U.S. Geological Survey uses stream-gaging systems to measure water height, with data being transmitted to stations via telephone or satellite. Manual methods for directly measuring or inferring streamflow (discharge) data from gage height have been replaced by Acoustic Doppler current profilers that use sound waves to measure velocity, depth, and path (which are used to calculate streamflow rates).

Limitations and Sources of Error

Limits to the data vary historically as current methods for directly measuring discharge offer an alternative to inference of this parameter. The article Stream Flow Measurement and Data Dissemination Improve discusses issues related to streamflow data quality.

References and Resources

Scientific References that Use this Dataset

  • The USGS provides a tutorial on accessing streamflow and water quality data.

Education Resources that Use this Dataset

Other Related Scientific References

Other related Education Resources

  • Using Logic Problems in Introductory-Level Geoscience Courses to Develop Critical Reasoning and Basic Quantitative Skills: Article describes a logic-based approach to using data in the classroom and describes an activity using USGS streamflow data (from Journal of Geoscience Education).
  • A Civil Action' 1-D Contaminant Transport Game: An in-depth hydrogeology exercise for undergraduate students, which includes detailed teaching notes and an Excel spreadsheet that allows students to perform iterative simulations to calculate flow of contaminants through surface water. This interdisciplinary activity addresses important concepts in hydrogeology, how scientific models are developed and used, and how these topics are relevant in society (from Cutting Edge Workshop on Hydrogeology).
  • Teaching floods and flooding quantitatively: A detailed example including resources for educators and students. The example supports quantitative explorations of floods and streamflow (from Teaching Quantitative Skills in the Geosciences).
  • Socratic questioning: An annotated example that provides resources and questions for examining impacts of urbanization on the hydrosphere (from Starting Point-Teaching Entry Level Geoscience).

Related Links

  • The USGS site contains general information about streamflow, as well as specific information about surface water and stream flow. The site offers virtual courses, including a course on relationships.
  • Starting point offers pedagogical resources related to teaching the hydrosphere from an earth system approach. Other resources available from SERC include an example of Socratic questioning regarding the hydrosphere and an activity using the USGS streamflow data.