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Using the Tracer-Dilution Discharge Method to Develop Streamflow Records for Ice-Affected Streams in Colorado

By Joseph P. Capesius, Joseph R. Sullivan, Gregory B. O'Neill, and Cory A. Williams

Available from the U.S. Geological Survey, Branch of Information Services, Box 25286, Denver Federal Center, Denver, CO 80225, USGS Scientific Investigations Report 2004-5164, 14 p., 6 figs.

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The citation for this report, in USGS format, is as follows:
Capesius, J.P., Sullivan, J.R., O'Neill, G.B., and Williams, C.A., 2005, Using the tracer-dilution discharge method to develop streamflow records for ice-affected streams in Colorado: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2004-5164, 14 p.


Accurate ice-affected streamflow records are difficult to obtain for several reasons, which makes the management of instream-flow water rights in the wintertime a challenging endeavor. This report documents a method to improve ice-affected streamflow records for two gaging stations in Colorado. In January and February 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, conducted an experiment using a sodium chloride tracer to measure streamflow under ice cover by the tracer-dilution discharge method. The purpose of this study was to determine the feasibility of obtaining accurate ice-affected streamflow records by using a sodium chloride tracer that was injected into the stream. The tracer was injected at two gaging stations once per day for approximately 20 minutes for 25 days. Multiple-parameter water-quality sensors at the two gaging stations monitored background and peak chloride concentrations. These data were used to determine discharge at each site. A comparison of the current-meter streamflow record to the tracer-dilution streamflow record shows different levels of accuracy and precision of the tracer-dilution streamflow record at the two sites. At the lower elevation and warmer site, Brandon Ditch near Whitewater, the tracer-dilution method overestimated flow by an average of 14 percent, but this average is strongly biased by outliers. At the higher elevation and colder site, Keystone Gulch near Dillon, the tracer-dilution method experienced problems with the tracer solution partially freezing in the injection line. The partial freezing of the tracer contributed to the tracer-dilution method underestimating flow by 52 percent at Keystone Gulch. In addition, a tracer-pump-reliability test was conducted to test how accurately the tracer pumps can discharge the tracer solution in conditions similar to those used at the gaging stations. Although the pumps were reliable and consistent throughout the 25-day study period, the pumps underdischarged the tracer by 5.8-15.9 percent as compared to the initial pumping rate setting, which may explain some of the error in the tracer-dilution streamflow record as compared to current-meter streamflow record.

Table of Contents



Purpose and Scope


Methods of Streamflow Measurement

Current-Meter Discharge Measurements

Tracer-Dilution Discharge Measurements

Conventional Streamflow-Record Computation

Methods of Tracer-Gage Operations

Methods of the Pump-Reliability Test

Using the Tracer-Gage Method to Develop Streamflow Records

Discharge-Measurement Comparison

Streamflow-Record Computation

Streamflow-Record Comparison

Tracer-Pump Evaluation

Equipment and Error Analysis

Instream Flow Water Rights and Tracer-Gage Streamflow Records

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited

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