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USGS Opens a New Channel for Research and Outreach

A fact-finding research organization, the U.S. Geological Survey is probably best known as the nation’s largest civilian mapping agency. But the USGS is also the nation’s largest water, earth, and biological science agency, with Water Science Centers found in every state dedicated to studying regional water resources.

In May 2012, the USGS opened the new $1.2 million West Wing of its Middleton, Wisconsin, Water Science Center in order to house the USGS Center for Integrated Data Analytics (CIDA), which develops high-end data management applications and services for large environmental datasets. The Center’s expansion will allow the USGS Mercury Research Laboratory to bring all of its processing in-house, thereby creating a more efficient and stable environment for analysis. More important for Wisconsin, the new wing provides additional space for the Center’s staff to better work and collaborate with over fifty different partners across the state—including local, city, and county governments, sanitary and lake management districts, multiple University of Wisconsin schools and programs, nonprofit organizations, and tribes.

“For more than a century, USGS science has been helping the citizens of Wisconsin reap the greatest recreational benefit from its beautiful lakes and streams, enabling emergency responders to give timely warnings for rising flood waters, and providing university researchers with access to authoritative information for cutting-edge studies,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt.

Drawing information from a network of over 200 testing and observations stations throughout the state, the Wisconsin Water Science Center provides current real-time data on stream stage and streamflow, water quality, and ground water. Citizens concerned about the safety of their drinking water, sportsmen seeking water temperature data to find the best fishing spot, or first responders leading evacuations during a flood all depend upon the Center for reliable and immediate information.

While many of the Center’s long-term projects provide important information about threats like flooding, droughts, and pollution, researchers there also study many topics that arise in response to new environmental information and concerns, like proposed iron and sand mines in Wisconsin. [Editor’s note: Silica sand mines have operated in Wisconsin for years. However, recent increases in hydrofracking, a technique used by the petroleum industry to extract natural gas and/or crude oil from rock formations, have fueled demand for Wisconsin's high-quality sand resources. We are therefore seeing a substantial rise in mining permit requests for frac sand.] The Center also monitors pathogen and mercury contamination in Wisconsin streams and beaches, as well as the potential effects of climate change on streams, lakes, and native fish.

In order to make all that research useful to Wisconsinites, the Wisconsin Water Science Center focuses on community outreach, giving presentations, leading field trips, and participating in conferences. “Recently, we’ve begun to be more proactive about sharing our research and knowledge with the local community,” says USGS geographer and outreach coordinator Jennifer Bruce. “We hope to continue looking for new ways to communicate our findings to the public and get them excited about the [water] science being done in their backyard.”

Access to USGS data on floods, droughts, streamflow, water quality, and groundwater, as well as full-text historical and up-to-date reports can be found online at

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Katie Ginther is the editorial assistant at the Wisconsin Academy.  Katie has worked on many freelance web design, graphic design, web content management, and writing projects over the past 3 years, including past contributions to Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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