Water & Watersheds

Teaching about the water cycle can be made more realistic and valuable for students by incorporating what they know about water-where it comes from, what happens to it after they use it, and what problems are associated with its use. Watersheds, the land area draining into a single body of water, can be considered a basic unit of the landscape that determines water availability, movement, and quality. When students study watersheds, they learn in a personal way about the importance of water, and how land use affects surface and groundwater.

Exploring our Local Water Cycle

Unit Plan: 
One to two hours

Students will know how the water cycle has been altered by humans using local data.  



When we think about the water cycle, most of us think of a diagram with arrows moving from alpine peaks into the big, blue ocean. Unless we live in such a place, this idealized diagram does not teach us where our water comes from or what happens to rain that falls on our neighborhoods. Through discussion with ecologists at the Cary Institute, we are beginning to understand that if we could help students learn about how water moves through the real world, concepts like watersheds and human impact on the environment would be more attainable.

Part 1: Precipitation-How much, and where does it go?

  1. Go to www.wunderground.com At the top of the screen, you’ll see “Features” and a lot of different topics to choose. Select “History Data”.
  2. On the next page, type in your location and the date you are interested in. Click “Submit”.
  3. You’ll see information for the Daily Summary. There are tabs at the top which allow you to select weekly, monthly, or custom. Select “Custom”.
  4. Type in the date range you would like to see. For precipitation, we recommend looking at a full year to get an average. For New York, the average annual precipitation is about 40 inches.
  5. Using this information, you can begin to construct a water budget for your school. You can use the “School Water Budget” lesson plan and worksheet, which can be found in the Changing Hudson Project’s curriculum materials for the Pollution unit (www.caryinstitute.org/chp.html ). You will also have to find out how much water your school uses, and the different types of surfaces around your school.
  6. You can use Google Earth to get photos of your schoolyard, neighborhood, or town in order to classify permeable surfaces. In general, no water is absorbed by impermeable surfaces, 50% is absorbed by soil, and 50% is absorbed by vegetation. These numbers will change depending on your local situation: the type of soil in your region, the amount of rainfall, the amount of solar radiation, etc. You could conduct some basic studies with your students to measure infiltration rates in your area.

Part 2: Streamflow

  1. Go to: http://water.usgs.gov/data/ and click on “Real-time streamflow”.
  2. Describe the trend in streamflow for the United States: which parts of the country have lower than normal streamflow, and which parts have higher than normal streamflow? What could be the reason for higher than normal streamflow? Lower than normal?
  3. Click on the state where you live. Describe the streamflow conditions in your state. If there are areas that are experiencing low, or much below normal streamflow, think about how you could explain that situation.
  4. Visit this site on the same day of each month, throughout the school year and keep track of high and low flow conditions for your state.

Part 3: Drought

  1. Go to: water.usgs.gov/data/ and click on “Real-time drought data”.
  2. Describe the areas of the country that are currently affected by drought. Which parts of the country have more severe drought conditions? Explain why you think this might be taking place.
  3. Visit this site on the same day of each month, throughout the school year and keep track of drought conditions for the U.S. and/or your state. 

Part 4: Ground Water

  1. Go to: water.usgs.gov/data/ and click on “Real-time ground-water levels”. 
  2. Find an area of the country that has a “red dot”. That means that the ground water is much below normal. Click on the state that has a red dot. 
  3. Once the state pops up, click on one of the red dots that you see within that state. 
  4. On the next page, you get information about the specific well that is below normal. If you scroll down on the page, you’ll see a type of hydrograph, which explains the changes in the water level over a specific time period (usually a year). Based on this graph, for how many months does the water level in the well drop below the yellow (below normal) or red (much below normal) level? What do you think might be causing this low water level? 
  5. Keep track of the ground water levels throughout the year. Different people in your class could keep track of different wells in your state, and compare them with another state, throughout the year. 

Part 5: Water Quality

  1. Go to: water.usgs.gov/data/ and click on “Real-time surface water quality”.
  2. This map of the United States shows you the sampling locations of the USGS. The colors of the triangles refer to measurement that is being taken. It first shows you temperature (red colors indicate warmer temperatures). 
  3. To change the measurement, in the upper left hand side of the page, click on the arrow next to the “Measurement” box. You can select turbidity, dissolved oxygen, pH, discharge (streamflow), and specific conductance. For more information about these water quality indicators, you can find background readings at the high school level at: www.caryinstitute.org/chp.html in the Resources section. 
  4.  If you click on any of the triangles, you can get more specific information for a particular location, including graphs of the data.

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies | Millbrook, New York 12545 | Tel (845) 677-5343

Privacy Policy Copyright © 2016