In hydrology, discharge is the volumetric flow rate of water that is transported through a given cross-sectional area.[1] It includes any suspended solids (e.g. sediment), dissolved chemicals (e.g. CaCO3(aq)), or biologic material (e.g. diatoms) in addition to the water itself.

Synonyms vary by discipline. For example, a fluvial hydrologist studying natural river systems may define discharge as streamflow, whereas an engineer operating a reservoir system might define discharge as outflow, which is contrasted with inflow.

Theory and calculation

A discharge is a measure of the quantity of any fluid flow over unit time. The quantity may be either volume or mass. Thus the water discharge of a tap (faucet) can be measured with a measuring jug and a stopwatch. Here the discharge might be 1 litre per 15 seconds, equivalent to 67 ml/second or 4 litres/minute. This is an average measure. For measuring the discharge of a river we need a different method and the most common is the 'area/velocity' method. The area is the cross sectional area across a river and the average velocity across that section needs to be measured for a unit time, commonly a minute. Measurement of cross sectional area and average velocity, although simple in concept, are frequently non-trivial to determine.

The units that are typically used to express discharge in streams or rivers include m³/s (cubic meters per second), ft³/s (cubic feet per second or cfs) and/or acre-feet per day.[2]

A commonly applied methodology for measuring, and estimating, the discharge of a river is based on a simplified form of the continuity equation. The equation implies that for any incompressible fluid, such as liquid water, the discharge (Q) is equal to the product of the stream's cross-sectional area (A) and its mean velocity (), and is written as:


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