My first article in this series dealt with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), the longest serving Federal organization dealing with water resources in the United States. In this article, I’m discussing the second oldest, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) whose mandate is very different from that of the Corps.
The U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) was created in 1879 by President Rutherford B. Hayes as a non-political organization tasked to assess (survey) the natural resources of the U. S. The 1869 Colorado River expedition by a group led by John Wesley Powell who was to become the second Director of the USGS, captured the imagination of the country and was the impetus for the creation of USGS.
For 136 years, the USGS has provided the nation with outstanding scientific information on the hydrology, biology, geography and geology of the U. S.
Hydrology soon became one of the most important functions of USGS.
In 1904 the Hydrographic Branch of USGS was established and in 1949 it was renamed the Water Resources Division (WRD). As time passed, WRD became the largest branch of USGS often with multiple offices in each state and territory.
The USGS is unique among federal water agencies because it has no water resource development responsibilities like the Corps, or resource protection responsibilities like the Environmental Protection Agency.
Instead, the mission of the USGS related to water resources is to provide objective, reliable and unbiased data and information on the water resources of the United States. These data can be and are used by other Federal agencies, state agencies, other governmental and non-governmental agencies and the private sector to make water resource decisions or to conduct water resources-related projects.
The USGS currently collects real-time water discharge information from 9,889 sites on rivers and streams in the U. S. and its territories. These data are transmitted via satellite to USGS offices and are available almost immediately for users. Two of the principal uses of these data are 1) to determine timing of releases from reservoirs, and 2) for early warning downstream areas of impending flooding and anticipated flood peaks.
The USGS also collects real-time water quality data including temperature, dissolved oxygen, specific conductance and pH at 1,886 locations nationwide and daily water quality data at nearly 13,000 other ground- or surface water sites. They also collect real-time groundwater level information from more than 1,000 well sites and less frequent information from many other wells. Water quality data is useful for assessing contamination and for monitoring spills. Groundwater level information identifies areas of water level rise or decline in aquifers.
Compiling water use data is another USGS responsibility. Water use is reported in eight different categories including irrigation, public supply, domestic, industrial, livestock, thermoelectric power, mining and aquaculture. Updated water use reports are published every five years. Finally, the USGS conducts research on other water problems in the U. S.
Although water presently is the largest, there are five other related areas of USGS responsibility. These are Ecosystems, Climate and Land Use Change, Environmental Health, Natural Hazards (for example, earthquakes and volcanoes), and Energy and Minerals.
A personal note, I was a USGS-WRD employee for 27 years. My last position was State Office Chief. I spent another nine years with the Department of the Interior, managing a National program in which the USGS was heavily involved.