Field Observations & Sampling Location

Volunteer water quality monitoring is a great tool for building appreciation and respect for our natural resources. The first step to successful field monitoring is observing the natural world around us.  For Utah Water Watch, all monitoring events include important qualitative observations about habitat, water conditions, and weather.  These observations help us understand the other quantitative data that volunteers collect.

Field Observations:

There are a variety of observations like flow, water clarity, and weather. Here is a list of field observations, click on the link to know more about the individual parameters.

Sampling Location:

Each time you monitor it is important to return as closely as possible to the same exact location.  By sampling at the same location every time, the variability of moving to different locations is prevented.  This provides more accurate comparisons from one monitoring event to the next.

Additionally, it is important to note where you are sampling.  For a lake you can monitor it at one of three locations: Inshore (along the shoreline), from a dock or pier, or from a boat.  It is best to monitor a lake where you have access to deep water for the Secchi Disk measurement, so we prefer a boat or pier, not inshore.

For a stream you have two options:





You are standing on the stream bank or in the adjacent shallows. All measurements take place outside of the main flow


You are standing in the flowing section of the stream. May not be the deepest part of the stream, but all measurements are taken in a well and flowing location.


A stream contains riffles, runs and pools. These different areas provide diverse habitats for fish and other aquatic life. The relative proportions of these different habitats in a stream are one way to determine how healthy the stream is. The riffle/ run/ pool ration is a measure of the kinds of habitat in your stream for fish, macroinvertebrates and other aquatic life.


Water that moves over a shallow area of cobbles and gravel creates a riffle (a length of stream characterized by shallow, fast moving water broken by rocks). These well-oxygenated, fast moving waters provide habitat for macroinvertebrates and spawning fish. Higher densities of organisms live in riffles compared to pools (The macroinvertebrate faunas of riffles and pools).

Here are some examples of riffles:



A run is a length of a stream that has moving water, even depth, and low turbulence. Runs are generally deeper than riffles. Runs are good areas for fish to feed and travel.



A pool is a deep area of fairly still water which creates refuges for fish to hide in and to rest from the current. Pools provide unfrozen habitat for aquatic life during the winter and also act as natural pollution filters. Some pollutants, such as suspended solids, settle out of the water and down to the bottom of pools.


Stream flow or discharge is the amount of water that flows past a specific point in a stream over a specific period of time. The velocity and volume of the stream are essential components for stream flow to determine the energy of the water. To calculate stream flow:

Stream flow = Velocity (ft/sec) × Area  (ft2) = ft3/sec (cfs)

There are different types of stream flows: perennial (continuous flow), intermittent (non-permanent flow with a defined channel and evidence of erosion or deposition), and ephemeral (flows tied to precipitation or seasonal events). Stream flow affects the turbidity and dissolved oxygen concentrations; therefore, it is important to know the stream flow.

The minimum instream flow requirements are set by water management agencies to maintain enough water in a stream for fish or other aquatic wildlife populations. Check with Utah Division of Water Rights to see if any minimum flows have been established for your stream. 




No flow

Water not moving; either no water or only water in isolated pools


Some flow but lower than normal baseflow

Normal/ Baseflow

Natural flow of the stream due to infiltration

High/ Runoff

At or near bank full due to recent precipitation or runoff


Stream is out of the banks


Water Surface:

Is there material on the surface of the stream?

Water Surface




No material is on the surface of the stream


A visible dirty film on the surface


Bubbles or foam

Natural Debris

Lots of leaves, sticks, or other natural objects


Lots of plastic, garbage, or other forms of trash

Sheen/ Oily

Surface has a multi-colored sheen or dark oil


Water Clarity:

Water appearance is often the most obvious water quality indicator that people notice. However, it is not a precise indicator of stream health and is best considered in combination with other data you will collect. The water clarity in lakes or streams can change with weather, water flow, and land use. When in the field, look into the water and record the best description.






Water is transparent and you can see through it to the bottom

Cloudy/ Milky

Water has a whitish or chalky appearance.  Water not completely opaque, still somewhat transparent


Water has a murky or muddy appearance.  Cannot see through the water.


Water Color:

Water appearance is often the most obvious water quality indicator that people notice. However, it is not a precise indicator of stream health and is best considered in combination with other data you will collect. Healthy streams may range from clear to brown. Unhealthy streams can even be crystal clear.   When in the field, choose one of the following colors that best describes the stream, and check NORMAL if it is the typical color when you come to monitor or ABNORMAL if this color is unusual for the stream.





Usually associated with healthy waters. However, clear waters may be polluted with colorless substances. Very clear water without any living organisms indicate a pollution problem.


Often results from decaying organic matter in the stream or lots of sediment. Streams that drain wetlands may be stained a very dark brown.


Slightly greenish water results from the presence of microscopic plants or algae and usually indicate healthy conditions. Deep green, or pea soup color, often results from an overabundance of algae (phytoplankton). Heavy nutrient loads from fertilizers, animal waste, and poor sewage treatments often promote heavy amounts of algae.


May result naturally from drainage through soils rich in iron and tannins.


Clear cool waters often have a blue color.  Strong blue colors can result from glacial runoff.


May indicate runoff from mines or oil well; may result naturally from drainage through soils rich in iron and tannins.

Water Odor:

Does the water smell? Smell is a useful, but limited, tool that should be considered in combination with other indicators. Below are common smells from both healthy and unhealthy waters:





No strong or apparent odor associated with the water


A strong chemical smell that could be the result of mishandled industrial waste or effluent


A foul smell that can indicate possible contamination of wastes from people or animals.

Rotten Egg

A sulfurous smell which often indicates anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition processes or some animal waste. Minerals delivered from sulfur springs also give off this smell


A strong smell that indicates the presence of dead fish


May indicate mold, raw sewage, animal waste or heavy algal accumulation and decomposition


Smells like a swimming pool.  May result from heavy chlorination of treated sewage.  

Algae Cover:

Algae are a natural part of aquatic ecosystems.  We use them as indicators.  A large increase in algae can indicate an imbalance in the watershed.  Extremely abundant algae cover is the result of heavy nutrient loads from fertilizers (agriculture, golf courses, lawns), animal waste (feeding operations) and poor sewage treatment often promote heavy amounts of algae. Overabundance of algae (phytoplankton) often result in deep green, or pea soup color.

When investigating algae cover, look upstream and downstream (10m) of the sampling location and record what category best describes the dominate condition of algae in the stream.

Algae cover



Little/ Rare

No visible signs of algae

Substrate layer

Algae that is attached to the stream bed and woody debris; often green-brown slimy coating


Strands of long green string or hair like algae attached to substrate, rocks, or plants


Dead Fish:

Look around the immediate sampling location (10m in all directions) and count the number of dead fish floating or below the surface. If there is an abnormally large fish kill, take a photo if possible and report it to the Department of Environmental Quality: (800)458-0145.

Present Weather:

Choose the one category that best represents the weather while you sampled.




Light Rain

Heavy Rain


Past 24 Hour Weather:

Choose the categories that best applies to the weather over the past 24 hours.  Why do we care about yesterday's weather? Past weather will affect volume of flow, turbidity, temperature, and other factors in your stream. If a weather event was an unusual one, your results may be unusual, too.


Inches of Rainfall:

Total rainfall in past 72 hours.  We want a general description of how much it has rained in the past 3 days.  Rain events can result in changes in water quality due to increased flows or run off from the associated watershed.

If you cannot remember how much it rained in the past three days you can look up this information.  Locate a weather station nearby and record the total precipitation.

You can check weather stations near your monitoring site on the NOAA Weather site or through the Utah chapter of CoCoRaHS (another citizen science project).