Hydrology and Water Quality in 15 Watersheds in DeKalb County, Georgia, 2012–16

Scientific Investigations Report 2021-5126
Prepared in cooperation with DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management
By: , and 



The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management, established a long-term water-quantity and water-quality monitoring program in 2012 to monitor and analyze the hydrologic and water-quality conditions of 15 watersheds in DeKalb County, Georgia—an urban and suburban area located in north-central Georgia that includes the easternmost part of the City of Atlanta. This report synthesizes the watershed characteristics and monitoring data collected for the first 5 years of the program, 2012 through 2016. The study area was predominantly medium-density residential (43.9 percent), commercial/industrial/institutional (21.4 percent), forest/park/agriculture (13.6 percent), and high-density residential (11.5 percent) land uses. Land-surface slope averaged 8.7 percent, imperviousness averaged 25.3 percent, and population density averaged 2,936 people per square mile. Watershed imperviousness ranged from 8.7 to 36.6 percent.

In the study area for 2014 to 2016 (when streamflow data were available for all watersheds), runoff represented 40.9 percent of precipitation. Hydrograph separations indicated that 43 percent of runoff occurred as base flow, whereas the remainder occurred as stormflow. Higher watershed imperviousness was significantly related to higher amounts of runoff (Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient [r] = 0.517), higher runoff ratios (r = 0.646), and lower amounts (r = −0.637) and proportions (r = −0.898) of base-flow runoff. Stormwater best management practices have been implemented in the study watersheds; however, these practices do not appear to fully mitigate the effects of urban development and land use on stream hydrology.

Total copper, lead, and zinc concentrations in base-flow and stormflow samples exceeded the national recommended aquatic life criteria for chronic and acute conditions, respectively, to varying degrees. Escherichia coli density predictive regression models indicated that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Beach Action Value was exceeded at individual watersheds between 44.6 and 100 percent of the time. Exceedance of the Beach Action Value indicates possible unsafe conditions for primary contact recreation and could be used for timely notification of the potential health risks. Annual loads and yields were estimated for 15 constituents. Loads were typically higher for years with higher runoff while variations among watershed yields appear associated with watershed and land use characteristics. The lowest yields for almost all constituents occurred in the Stone Mountain Creek watershed—likely the result of the retention of sediment and reduction of nutrients in Stone Mountain Lake and two smaller downstream reservoirs within the watershed. The Little Stone Mountain Creek watershed also had some of the lowest yields for most constituents, likely due to the lack of many pollutant sources associated with its predominantly medium-density residential land use (95.5 percent), but had the highest total nitrate plus nitrite yields. The Intrenchment Creek watershed consistently had some of the highest yields across all constituents except for total nitrate plus nitrite. The high yields may be related to its high percentage of impervious area (36.0 percent) and high amount of heavily developed land use (high-density residential, 29.9 percent and commercial/industrial/institutional, 26.0 percent). Mean watershed constituent yields in this study were significantly higher than those from a similar analysis of 13 suburban to urban watersheds in adjacent Gwinnett County for 6 of the 10 constituents compared.

This study provides a thorough assessment of watershed characteristics, hydrology, and water-quality conditions of the 15 study watersheds and can be used to identify possible factors that affect runoff and water quality. Watershed managers can use these data and analyses to inform management decisions regarding the designated uses of streams, minimization of flooding, protection of aquatic habitats, and optimization of the effectiveness of best management practices.

Suggested Citation

Aulenbach, B.T., Kolb, K., Joiner, J.K., and Knaak, A.E., 2022, Hydrology and water quality in 15 watersheds in DeKalb County, Georgia, 2012–16: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2021–5126, 105 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20215126.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

ISSN: 2328-031X (print)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Study Design and Methods
  • Watershed Characteristics
  • Water Budget
  • Surface-Water Quality
  • Discussion
  • Summary
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Water-Quality Assurance and Control Summary
  • Appendix 2. Regression-Model Load Estimation Methodology Changes
  • Appendix 3. LOADEST Load Model Evaluation
  • Appendix 4. Assessment of Effects of Time-Step Load Methodology on Load Estimates
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Hydrology and water quality in 15 watersheds in DeKalb County, Georgia, 2012–16
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2021-5126
DOI 10.3133/sir20215126
Year Published 2022
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Georgia Water Science Center, South Atlantic Water Science Center
Description Report: xii, 105 p.; Data Release; Database
Country United States
State Georgia
County DeKalb County
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details