UW Extension

Big data from small streams

Dave Hart and intern Catherine Christenson in a canoe laden with instruments collect data about Wisconsin’s surface water. This data will be used to provide inputs for groundwater models.

Dave Hart, a hydrogeologist at University of Wisconsin–Extension’s Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, is designing and implementing a project that his coworkers call “stream floats.”

Hart collects data and uses models to understand Wisconsin’s water quantity and quality problems. Good groundwater models include the interactions between groundwater and surface water and the best models have the best data. That’s where “big data from small streams” comes in.

Hart and his collaborators (Andy Leaf from the USGS; Jean Bahr, Mike Cardiff, and Dante Fratta from UW–Madison; and Sue Swanson from Beloit College) are collecting data from representative streams across Wisconsin’s geographic regions. The data include stream stage, width, and depth; stream bottom type; basic stream chemistry and temperature; and videos of the stream bank and bottom—collected by instruments mounted in a canoe. This approach gathers data continuously over miles-long sections of streams. It provides snapshots of groundwater/surface water interactions and stream parameters governing that interaction at a point in time. The streams will be surveyed at different times to capture both high and low flow conditions.

Although Dr. Hart’s focus is on using the data as inputs for groundwater models, he expects that data collected by these methods will also apply to other objectives such as surveys of the stream health.

Dave Hart and Catherine Christenson in canoe while Pete Chase attempts to push boat through a shallow area.

Collecting data from small streams isn’t always smooth sailing—or paddling. Pete Chase helps slide the boat over a shallow spot.