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Getting To Know Your Local Waterways

2012 October 19

By Doug Norton

“How’s My Waterway?” Can you answer this question about your favorite vacation lake, or the river where you walk with your dog? Are streams in your community polluted, and what’s being done about it if they are?

Most people don’t know – and are surprised to learn that the answers have been publicly available for years. But publicly available doesn’t always mean easily accessible, and understandable.

For decades, the Clean Water Act has required tracking of water pollution problems and restoration progress across the nation. EPA public databases include detailed information about the condition of local streams and lakes, pollutants, where they come from, and progress on fixing the problems.

As an Office of Water scientist, I regularly use these databases in national and state studies of water pollution trends and restoration strategies. But even I had trouble answering the simple question: “How’s My Waterway?” These data systems weren’t designed to provide a quick look at local waters or to provide a simple explanation of what the data really mean. Chances are most people would be baffled by EPA’s complex databases and scientific information. They might say, “But all I really want to know is: how’s MY waterway? And please tell me in words I can understand.”

My project team created an exciting solution to this dilemma as part of EPA’s Water Data Project, which makes important water information more widely known and available to the general public. We developed How’s My Waterway as a simpler pathway through the same EPA database. You can instantly get localized information about waterways in map and list format by simply entering a zip code or place name. Anyone can check on local waters anywhere in the nation in seconds—even at the water’s edge, for those using smart phones.

Users can pan across a color-coded map that shows how common are the polluted, unpolluted, and unassessed waters. Waterway-specific details include the local pollutants and progress on clean-up plans. Plain-language descriptions about each pollutant explain where it comes from, whether it harms the environment and human health, and what people can do to help. Related links go to the technical database if needed or to other popular sites about beaches, drinking water, fish advisories and other water topics.

What’s the health of your waterway? Now you can find out

About the author: Doug Norton is a watershed scientist with EPA’s national Office of Water who studies national pollution patterns, helps states restore polluted waters, and designs tools to help improve public understanding of water pollution issues.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Sean Sheldrake permalink
    October 19, 2012

    Great article Doug! This is not only a great tool for recreational users, but first responders can benefit from this data immensely too. Fire and police divers need data on their local dive sites in addition to commercial divers and others. This is a great tool for improving worker safety as it makes existing information more accessible to a wider variety of groups, including a broad spectrum of divers — from FBI divers at Quantico to volunteer fire fighters in Texas. For more information on EPA’s contaminated water diving, see:

  2. Jeffery Robichaud permalink
    October 22, 2012

    Good work Doug and company. Here at EPA Region 7 in Kansas City, we have worked really hard over the past year and a couple of projects, one which provides hourly real-time estimates of bacteria concentrations in 10 area streams, using satellite telemetry and in stream probes. We call it KCWaterBug and it is available for free both Iphone

    and Droid

    It would be great if Hows My Waterway could provide links or interconnectedness to KCWaterBug for those streams where we have information.

  3. Casey McLaughlin permalink
    October 22, 2012

    EPA’s Kansas City Regional Office has established an Urban Stream Monitoring Network ( in the Kansas City Metropolitan area that provides data and information about water quality in area streams. The network currently consists of 36 monitoring sites located in 12 different streams. Users select a station using a simple mapping interface and can view/download biological, sediment, water, or bacteria sampling information from the database. The map includes locations for monitoring stations maintained by USGS (NWIS) and USEPA (STORET) and links directly to station data.

    One of the key elements behind is the power of providing data regarding water quality in a single location in a transparent and easily accessible format. For more information about the growing monitoring network, near-real time water quality information, or to contribute to the project, see

  4. Eric Thomas permalink
    October 23, 2012

    This is a great start. Like the quick mapping piece. Looks like the app will be useful as part of outreach presentations on related watershed projects and plans. Any idea of a timetable when the next assessment round (2012) of data would be incorporated into the application? As State/tribal assessments are approved by EPA, or as a nationwide update?

  5. Sports Probe permalink
    November 10, 2012

    great post…

  6. G. B Ingram permalink
    January 24, 2013

    I’m glad to hear of your success and ways to attain information of EPA. I live in Jackson Tn. by way of Denmark Tn. The area is filled with landfills and another one is in place. We have followed the process thru our local and state representatives with little assistance. No environmental justice. You think maybe you could assist us in setting up an organization or getting with the right people to assist us?

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