• urban intensity;
  • gradient;
  • environmental framework;
  • water quality;
  • ecology

ABSTRACT: Three investigations are underway, as part of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program, to study the relation between varying levels of urban intensity in drainage basins and in-stream water quality, measured by physical, chemical, and biological factors. These studies are being conducted in the vicinities of Boston (Massachusetts), Salt Lake City (Utah), and Birmingham (Alabama), areas where rapid urbanization is occurring. For each study, water quality will be sampled in approximately 30 drainage basins that represent a gradient of urban intensity. This paper focuses on the methods used to characterize and select the basins used in the studies. It presents a methodology for limiting the variability of natural landscape characteristics in the potential study drainage basins and for ranking the magnitude of human influence, or urbanization, based on land cover, infrastructure, and socioeconomic data in potential study basins. Basin characterization efforts associated with the Boston study are described for illustrative purposes.