Field Observations and Sampling Locations

    Field Observations and Sampling Locations

    Field ObservationField Observations for streams

    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. Click on the links below to learn more about individual observation parameters


    Definition: The volume of water that flows past a specific point in a stream over a specific time.  Also called stream discharge. 

    Why we monitor flow: The amount of water in the stream can influence other water quality parameters such as temperature, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity.


    What influences flow: Stream flow changes based on the amount of precipitation, weather, size of the watershed, and human water withdrawals. 

    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.

    Learn more about the movement of water.

    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

    no flow


    Some flow but lower than normal baseflow

    low flow

    Normal/ Baseflow

    Natural flow of the stream due to infiltration


    High/ Runoff

    At or near bank full due to recent precipitation or runoff

    high flow


    Stream is out of the banks


    Definition: The debris that are on the surface of the water.

    Volunteers record visual observations of what is on the surface of the water, an indicator of pollution. While material on the surface, like dust and pollen, can be natural, trash and oily materials on the surface can indicate improper disposal of man-made materials.


    Water Surface




    No material is on the surface of the stream

    Usually associated with healthy waters, however, clear waters may be polluted with colorless substances.



    A visible dirty film on the surface

    May result from floating algae or decaying plant material. 



    Bubbles or foam

    If foam is fairly thin, less than 6 inches high, and grayish, it may be the result of natural oils, soil particles and pollen.  Heavy foam may be the result of detergents or animal waste runoff.


    Natural Debris

    Lots of leaves, sticks, or other natural objects

    debris in river


    Lots of plastic, garbage, or other forms of trash


    Sheen/ Oily

    Surface has a multi-colored sheen or dark oil

    A light sheen may result from the natural breakdown of vegetation.

    A heavy sheen may indicate floating oil from dumping or run-off from sewers, roads and parking areas.  


    Definition: The amount of material suspended in the water column, related to turbidity or transparency. Sediment and algae, can smother habitat for aquatic macroinvertebrates and reduce light penetration. Activities in the watershed, such as forestry, agriculture and development, influence the water clarity.  Changes in land use can result in short or long term changes to the water clarity.  Furthermore, natural seasonal changes like high runoff can temporarily shift 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

    clear water clarity

    Cloudy/ Milky

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

    Milky water may be the result of natural sediments or indicated a dairy operation or paper manufacturing discharge. 



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


    Healthy streams may range from clear to brown. Unhealthy streams can even be crystal clear. Volunteers monitor water color to track large scale changes in the watershed.  If the waters of a clear lake changed to a muddy brown color that could indicate a change in the land use in the watershed. The size of the watershed, slope, geology, and land use all influence the water color. Lakes have small changes in color throughout the year due to physical and biological seasonal shifts.

    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. 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.

    clear water clarity


    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.


    The general smell of a water body can indicate potential contamination.  Not all unpleasant odors indicate an unnatural cause. Local biologic processes like decomposition influence water’s odor. Bacteria have a strong influence on smell. Waste disposal or accidental spills can temporarily change the smell of the water and are sometimes cause for concern. 

    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 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

    no algae

    Substrate layer

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

    substrate layer algae


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

    Filamentous algae


    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.

    Dead fish


    Lake trout

    Present Weather

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







    Light Rain

    light rain

    Heavy 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 Weather UndergroundNOAA Weather site or through the Utah chapter of CoCoRaHS (another citizen science project).