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The USGS Water Science School

How Streamflow is Measured
Part 2: The discharge measurement

Introduction 1: Measuring stage 2: Discharge measurement 3: Stage-discharge relation

Current-meter discharge measurements are made by determining the discharge in each subsection of a channel cross section and summing the subsection discharges to obtain a total discharge..Discharge is the volume of water moving down a stream or river per unit of time, commonly expressed in cubic feet per second or gallons per day. In general, river discharge is computed by multiplying the area of water in a channel cross section by the average velocity of the water in that cross section:

discharge = area velocity.

The USGS uses numerous methods and types of equipment to measure velocity and cross-sectional area, including the following current meter and Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler.

Current Meter

The most common method used by the USGS for measuring discharge is the mechanical current-meter method. In this method, the stream channel cross section is divided into numerous vertical subsections (diagram to the left). In each subsection, the area is obtained by measuring the width and depth of the subsection, and the water velocity is determined using a current meter (left-side picture below). The discharge in each subsection is computed by multiplying the subsection area by the measured velocity. The total discharge is then computed by summing the discharge of each subsection.

Numerous types of equipment and methods are used by USGS personnel to make current-meter measurements because of the wide range of stream conditions throughout the United States. Subsection width is generally measured using a cable, steel tape, or similar piece of equipment. Subsection depth is measured using a wading rod, if conditions permit, or by suspending a sounding weight from a calibrated cable and reel system off a bridge, cableway, or boat or through a hole drilled in ice.

Pictures of current meter devices used to measure stream velocity.

The velocity of the streamflow is measured using a current meter. The most common current meter used by the USGS is the Price AA current meter (fig. 4). The Price AA current meter has a wheel of six metal cups that revolve around a vertical axis. An electronic signal is transmitted by the meter on each revolution allowing the revolutions to be counted and timed. Because the rate at which the cups revolve is directly related to the velocity of the water, the timed revolutions are used to determine the water velocity. The Price AA meter is designed to be attached to a wading rod for measuring in shallow waters or to be mounted just above a weight suspended from a cable and reel system for measuring in fast or deep water. In shallow water, the Pygmy Price current meter can be used. It is a two-fifths scale version of the Price AA meter and is designed to be attached to a wading rod. A third mechanical current meter, also a variation of the Price AA current meter, is used for measuring water velocity beneath ice. Its dimensions allow it to fit easily through a small hole in the ice, and it has a polymer rotor wheel that hinders the adherence of ice and slush (right-side picture above).

Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler

In recent years, advances in technology have allowed the USGS to make discharge measurements by use of an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP). An ADCP uses the principles of the Doppler Effect to measure the velocity of water. The Doppler Effect is the phenomenon we experience when passed by a car or train that is sounding its horn. As the car or train passes, the sound of the horn seems to drop in frequency.

The ADCP uses the Doppler Effect to determine water velocity by sending a sound pulse into the water and measuring the change in frequency of that sound pulse reflected back to the ADCP by sediment or other particulates being transported in the water. The change in frequency, or Doppler Shift, that is measured by the ADCP is translated into water velocity. The sound is transmitted into the water from a transducer to the bottom of the river (diagram below) and receives return signals throughout the entire depth. The ADCP also uses acoustics to measure water depth by measuring the travel time of a pulse of sound to reach the river bottom at back to the ADCP.

Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) mounted in a small watercraft, is used for measuring the discharge of a river. The ADCP acoustic beams are directed down into the water as it is guided across a river channel.

Acoustic Doppler Velocimeter (ADV) mounted on a wading rod.To make a discharge measurement, the ADCP is mounted onto a boat or into a small watercraft (diagram above) with its acoustic beams directed into the water from the water surface. The ADCP is then guided across the surface of the river to obtain measurements of velocity and depth across the channel. The river-bottom tracking capability of the ADCP acoustic beams or a Global Positioning System (GPS) is used to track the progress of the ADCP across the channel and provide channel-width measurements. Using the depth and width measurements for calculating the area and the velocity measurements, the discharge is computed by the ADCP using discharge = area velocity, similar to the conventional current-meter method. Acoustic velocity meters have also been developed for making wading measurements (picture to the left).

The ADCP has proven to be beneficial to streamgaging in several ways. The use of ADCPs has reduced the time it takes to make a discharge measurement. The ADCP allows discharge measurements to be made in some flooding conditions that were not previously possible. Lastly, the ADCP provides a detailed profile of water velocity and direction for the majority of a cross section instead of just at point locations with a mechanical current meter; this improves the discharge measurement accuracy.

Sources and more information

Related topics:

How the stream height (stage) relates to the amount of water flowing in a stream
Real-time USGS streamflow data

Learn about the water cycle, with a diagram in over 60 languages.The water cycle: Streamflow

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