Hydrology and water quality in 13 watersheds in Gwinnett County, Georgia, 2001–15

Scientific Investigations Report 2017-5012
Prepared in cooperation with the Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources
By: , and 


  • Document: Report (5.65 MB pdf)
  • Data Release: USGS data release - Stream water-quality summary statistics and outliers, streamwater load models and yield estimates, and peak flow modeling parameters for 13 watersheds in Gwinnett County, Georgia
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The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources, established a Long-Term Trend Monitoring (LTTM) program in 1996. The LTTM program is a comprehensive, long-term, water-quantity and water-quality monitoring program designed to document and analyze the hydrologic and water-quality conditions of selected watersheds in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Water-quality monitoring initially began in six watersheds and currently [2016] includes 13 watersheds.

As part of the LTTM program, streamflow, precipitation, water temperature, specific conductance, and turbidity were measured every 15 minutes for water years 2001–15 at 12 of the 13 watershed monitoring stations and for water years 2010–15 at the other watershed. In addition, discrete water-quality samples were collected seasonally from May through October (summer) and November through April (winter), including one base-flow and three stormflow event composite samples, during the study period. Samples were analyzed for nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), total organic carbon, trace elements (total lead and total zinc), total dissolved solids, and total suspended sediment (total suspended solids and suspended-sediment concentrations). The sampling scheme was designed to identify variations in water quality both hydrologically and seasonally.

The 13 watersheds were characterized for basin slope, population density, land use for 2012, and the percentage of impervious area from 2000 to 2014. Several droughts occurred during the study period—water years 2002, 2007–08, and 2011–12. Watersheds with the highest percentage of impervious areas had the highest runoff ratios, which is the portion of precipitation that occurs as runoff. Watershed base-flow indexes, the ratio of base-flow runoff to total runoff, were inversely correlated with watershed impervious area.

Flood-frequency estimates were computed for 13 streamgages in the study area that have 10 or more years of annual peak flow data through water year 2015, using the expected moments algorithm to fit a Pearson Type III distribution to logarithms of annual peak flows. Kendall’s tau nonparametric test was used to determine the statistical significance of trends in the annual peak flows, with none of the 13 streamgages exhibiting significant trends.

A comparison of base-flow and stormflow water-quality samples indicates that turbidity and concentrations of total ammonia plus organic nitrogen, total nitrogen, total phosphorus, total organic carbon, total lead, total zinc, total suspended solids, and suspended-sediment concentrations increased with increasing discharge at all watersheds. Specific conductance decreased during stormflow at all watersheds, and total dissolved solids concentrations decreased during stormflow at a few of the watersheds. Total suspended solids and suspended-sediment concentrations typically were two orders of magnitude higher in stormflow samples, turbidities were about 1.5 orders of magnitude higher, total phosphorus and total zinc were about one order of magnitude higher, and total ammonia plus organic nitrogen, total nitrogen, total organic carbon, and total lead were about twofold higher than in base-flow samples.

Seasonality and long-term trends were identified for the period water years 2001–15 for 10 constituents—total nitrogen, total nitrate plus nitrite, total phosphorus, dissolved phosphorus, total organic carbon, total suspended solids, suspended-sediment concentration, total lead, total zinc, and total dissolved solids. Seasonal patterns were present in most watersheds for all constituents except total dissolved solids, and the watersheds had fairly similar patterns of higher concentrations in the summer and lower concentrations in the winter. A linear long-term trend analysis of residual concentrations from the flow-only load estimation model (without time-trend terms) identified significant trends in 67 of the 130 constituent-watershed combinations. Seventy percent of the significant trends were negative. Total organic carbon and total dissolved solids had predominantly positive trends. Total phosphorus, total suspended solids, suspended-sediment concentration, total lead, and total zinc had only negative trends. The other three constituents exhibited fewer trends, both positive and negative.

Streamwater loads were estimated annually for the 13-year period water years 2003–15 for the same 10 constituents in the trend analysis. Loads were estimated using a regression-model-based approach developed by the USGS for the Gwinnett County LTTM program that accommodates the use of storm-event composited samples. Concentrations were modeled as a function of discharge, base flow, time, season, and turbidity to improve model predictions and reduce errors in load estimates. Total suspended solids annual loads have been identified in Gwinnett County’s Watershed Protection Plan for target performance criterion.

Although the amount of annual runoff was the primary factor in variations in annual loads, climatic conditions (classified as dry, average, or wet) affected annual loads beyond what was attributed to climatic-related variations in annual runoff. Significant negative trends in loads were estimated for the combined area of the watersheds for all constituents except dissolved phosphorus, total organic carbon, and total dissolved solids. The trend analysis indicated that total suspended solids and suspended-sediment concentration loads in the study area were decreasing by 57,000 and 87,000 pounds per day per year, respectively.

Variations in constituent yields between watersheds appeared to be related to various watershed characteristics. Suspended sediment (as either total suspended solids or suspended-sediment concentrations), along with constituents transported predominately in solid phase (total phosphorus, total organic carbon, total lead, and total zinc), and total dissolved solids typically had higher yields from watersheds that had high percentages of impervious areas or high basin slope. High total nitrogen yields were also associated with watersheds with high percentages of impervious areas. Low total nitrogen, total suspended solids, total lead, and total zinc yields appeared to be associated with watersheds that had a low percentage of high-density development.

Suggested Citation

Aulenbach, B.T., Joiner, J.K., and Painter, J.A., 2017, Hydrology and water quality in 13 watersheds in Gwinnett County, Georgia, 2001–15: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2017– 5012, 82 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20175012.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

ISSN: 2328-031X (print)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments 
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Study Design and Methods
  • Watershed Characteristics
  • Hydrologic Budgets 
  • Flood Frequency 
  • Surface-Water Quality
  • Water-Quality Seasonality and Long-Term Trends 
  • Constituent Loads and Yields
  • Interpreting Aggregate Effects on Water Quality
  • Summary
  • References Cited
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Hydrology and water quality in 13 watersheds in Gwinnett County, Georgia, 2001–15
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2017-5012
DOI 10.3133/sir20175012
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) South Atlantic Water Science Center
Description Report: x, 82 p.; Data release
Country United States
State Georgia
County Gwinnett County
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details