Big Data from Small Streams (and Small Lakes—the 2018 Update)

Dave Hart and Catherine Christenson in canoe holding paddles while Pete Chase attempts to pull the canoe through a shallow area.
Collecting data from small streams isn’t always smooth sailing—or paddling. Pete Chase helps slide the canoe over a shallow spot.

Dave Hart, a WGNHS hydrogeologist, is designing and implementing a project that is challenging ideas about how much data is enough data.

Dave 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.

Dave 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.

Two people in a red canoe floating on a lake. They are both wearing warm hats, coats and life vests.
Dave Hart and graduate student Catherine Christenson collect data about Wisconsin’s surface water in a canoe laden with instruments. This data will be used to provide inputs for groundwater models.

Although Dave’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.

In 2018, this project was expanded and extended to the Central Sands Lake Study. In that project, WGNHS staff used a water pump, GPS, and measurement probes to obtain profiles of basic lake water properties (i.e., temperature, conductivity, pH, and dissolved oxygen). These profiles will provide insights about areas in the lake where groundwater is seeping into the lakebed.

More information on this project is in our interactive map.