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USGS Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility

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picture of Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility hydrologic technician making a wading discharge measurement

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About the Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility

A Brief History of the Water Resources Discipline and the Role of the Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility in the USGS

historical photograph of USGS hydrographers who developed techniques for gaging streams at Embudo, New Mexico

Student hydrographers at Embudo Station, New Mexico (1889)

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) was established in 1879 by an act of Congress. The new bureau's mission was to "examine the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain." This mission was expanded in 1888 to include an investigation of the extent to which arid lands in the western United States could be irrigated. In order to execute this new mission the USGS developed new methods to gage the flow of streams and trained a group of hydrographers to conduct this work.

This initial training involving 14 men and under the direction of F. H. Newell took place at Embudo Station, New Mexico.


historical photograph of  the Denver and Rio Grande Railway station at Embudo, New Mexico

Embudo Station, New Mexico

Embudo Station was a railroad stop along the Rio Grande River and is still there today. At this gage, observations of water level, flow and the weather were made by USGS employees.

Techniques in continuous monitoring and new inventions in the associated equipment were direct results from this early pioneering work. Much of the early work in measuring water levels and water velocity were made with very simple tools.

historical photograph of a device employing a float and tape to measure stream stage

An early float device for measuring stream elevation

These early instruments, while accurate, were very manpower intensive and required much vigilance to keep up with necessary maintenance and repairs in order for the instruments to maintain their accuracy.

In the early 1920's the USGS Cooperative Water Program was started. Federal funds were appropriated by the US Government to be used by the USGS for hydrologic science. The Cooperative Program provided a system of matching funds that scientists could use to work with State and local agencies to collect continuous stream flow data. These were and are typically a fifty/fifty split with the USGS paying half and the cooperating agency paying half the costs associated with the collection of the data. Thus the USGS became the principal federal agency responsible for collecting, analyzing and archiving hydrologic data needed to plan, develop and manage the water resources of the United States.

The USGS office at Columbus, Ohio played a key role in the development of much of the commonly used equipment we have today. Located on the Ohio State University (OSU) Campus, the Ohio office was given access to the machine shop, foundry and testing laboratory of the University. Relying heavily on the OSU Department of Industrial Engineering, the Ohio office developed bridge cranes and trucks, sounding reels, sounding weights (still referred to as Columbus weights today), electric tape gage, and the wire weight gage.

picture of a wire weight gage currently used to manually verify stage sensor readings at USGS stream gaging stations

Picture of a wire weight gage currently used to manually verify stage sensor readings at USGS stream gaging stations

After World War II work that had begun on instrumentation for the measurement of surface water in the 1920's expanded to include instrumentation for the measurement of ground water and water quality.

With support from Headquarters in Washington DC, the Ohio Office continued the development of equipment and in the mid 1940's an equipment laboratory was established in a building adjacent to the Ohio Office. The primary reason for setting up this new laboratory was to increase the rate at which new equipment could be developed and to reduce the reliance on the OSU Engineering Department. This new group was named the Water Resources Branch Equipment Laboratory but was later changed to the Equipment Development Laboratory (EDL).

In the 1950's the Instrument Research Unit, later named the Instrument Development Laboratory (IDL), was established to formally recognize the increasing role of electronic technology in instrumentation. In 1959 the EDL was disbanded and the IDL took over the responsibility for equipment development. In the 1960's the programs of the USGS expanded rapidly and the IDL continued to provide instrument support to the USGS.

In 1971 the IDL moved to the Gulf Coast Hydroscience Center, Mississippi Test Facility, Bay St Louis, MS. Many new personnel were added to the staff and with access to the newly built Office of Surface Water Hydraulic Laboratory; many advances were made in instrumentation quality and accuracy. In the late 1970ís the site name changed to the National Space Technology Laboratory or NSTL.


picture of water discharging from the tilting flume in the Hydraulic Laboratory at the USGS Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility

Picture of water discharging from the tilting flume in the Hydraulic Laboratory at the USGS Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility

The Hydraulic Laboratory consists of a 450 ft tow tank, a large tilting flume, and jet tank facility in one building and a 4500 ft flood plain simulation facility located separately.

In 1980 the Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility (HIF) was established and the IDL became part of this new organization. The NSTL was renamed the Stennis Space Center after Senator John C. Stennis of MS in the early 1990ís. Through the 1980's and 1990's many new instruments and improvements to existing equipment were made including a regulator/charger, multiparameter water quality instrument, and personal field computing software.

In 2004 the decision was made to combine its Hydraulic Laboratory and the HIF into one entity. The Hydraulic Laboratory is now part of the Testing Section. In 2005 the Water Resources Division name was changed to the Water Resources Discipline.


picture of a USGS hydrographer using a mechanical current meter to measure streamflow from a bridge

Picture of a USGS hydrographer using a mechanical current meter to measure streamflow from a bridge

The HIF has four sections within its organizational structure; the Field Services Section which includes the warehouse, repair shop, and Engineering Unit (the former IDL); the Testing Section which includes the Hydraulic Laboratory, testing chambers, and Water Quality Laboratory; the Information Technology Section which includes computer support and the Drafting Unit; and finally the Administrative Section.

The HIF was given national responsibility for the design, testing, evaluation, repair, calibration, warehousing, and distribution of hydrologic instrumentation. Distribution is accomplished by direct sales and through a rental program.

The rental program provides many benefits over owning equipment and at a very reasonable cost. Many projects are short term and purchasing equipment that will need to be disposed of at the end of the project doesnít make sense. For long term projects, a lower up front cost, consistent cost each month, never having outdated equipment, no repair costs, and insurance against the loss or destruction of equipment are large incentives to rent as opposed to the liability of ownership.

picture of the USGS Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility warehouse

Picture of the USGS Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility warehouse

Through the process of rigorous testing, equipment is tested to the manufacturer's own specifications and against any USGS adopted specifications that might apply. Results of these tests are released internally to USGS offices through a quarterly newsletter, the Instrument News, so they can make informed decisions about the quality of instrumentation they might use for their project. This testing process raises the expectations from vendors and promotes the highest quality equipment at the lowest prices.

picture of a USGS Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility Testing Section Employee using an environmental chamber to evaluate instrument performance at various temperatures

Picture of a USGS Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility Testing Section Employee using an environmental chamber to evaluate instrument performance at various temperatures

The Engineering Group seeks out new technology and designs for instrumentation that can work more efficiently, be more accurate, and or be produced at a lower cost than existing instrumentation. HIF works directly with vendors to help them produce products that will meet the mission needs of the USGS. For instrument needs not currently met by a vendor, the Engineering Group designs, tests, and issues contracts to have HIF designed equipment made. Sometimes HIF will patent a new design in the hope that instrument vendors will buy the rights and mass produce the instrument at a lower cost to everyone.

The Drafting Unit maintains the archive of HIF drawing packages that are used when contracts are let to have equipment built. They also work closely with the Engineering Group during the design phase for new equipment or instruments.

picture of the USGS Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility building located on Stennis Space Center

Picture of the USGS Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility building located on Stennis Space Center

The HIF operates on a fee-for-service basis with the majority of the operational budget provided through the sale and rental of equipment. USGS offices are not required to purchase their equipment through HIF. Many offices do purchase their field equipment through the HIF, giving HIF volume purchasing power, and helping these offices to realize significant savings.

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Page Last Modified: Wednesday, 12-Dec-2012 12:27:24 EST