Budget Cuts to Result in Closure of Nearly 300 Flood Gauges

By , AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
May 16, 2013; 8:36 AM ET
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USGS Hydrologist technicians Suzanne Ward, front, and Tom Hunt, rear, drop a sensor into the Schuylkill River to gauge the speed, velocity and depth of the rising flood waters in Reading, Pa., Wednesday, June, 28, 2006. (AP Photo/Bradley C. Bower)

Despite record-breaking flooding in parts of the Midwest this year, budget cuts threaten to shut down hundreds of stream gauges across the United States.

The gauges are automated systems that collect data every 15 minutes. Every hour, that data is put through a satellite system and dispersed to the National Weather Service (NWS).

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), nearly 300 stream gauges are at risk for closure due to funding issues or shortages.

A 5 percent funding cut will take place in 2013, according to Program Coordinator of the National Streamflow Information Program, Mike Norris. The USGS operates about 85 percent of all stream gauges.

"We have no choice but to take cuts," Norris said.

On average, one stream gauge costs between $16,000 to $16,500 per year to operate and maintain, according to Norris. In 2012, the total cost of gauge operation was $165 million.

The USGS sends staff out to maintain stream gauges approximately six times per year. They monitor the vegetation growth, erosion and rapid water rise at the site, according to Norris.

The Department of Commerce, one of more than 850 federal, state and local agencies that help to fund gauges, had not returned a request for comment as of press time.

AccuWeather.com Expert Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski believes that there are risks in eliminating gauges because they provide critical information about downstream potential flood risk.

"If there is a rapid rise in water levels, it could pose as a greater risk for property and people's safety," he said.

In establishing which gauges to eliminate, priority will be given to those which have the greatest impact for protecting life and property. Additionally, the accuracy of the gauge and the preference of local officials will be considered.

"We know there is going to be hurt, so we are trying to minimize that hurt," he said.

New stream gauge systems will not replace the closing gauges. Norris said that he believes that quality of the gauges that are left is more important than quantity.

"The USGS made the decision not to lower the quality of data that is collected. People rely on USGS for their high quality data," Norris said.

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The NWS uses gauge readings to issue flood watches and warnings. Without these gauges, Norris said that the NWS could be "flying blind" when it comes to issuing warnings.

AccuWeather.com Expert Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski agrees that the NWS may struggle with the loss of gauges.

"If gauges aren't working or are discontinued, then the NWS may not know about a rise in water," he said.

David Miller, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, believes they are of critical importance.

"Without these observations, National Weather Service forecast and warning operations will be impaired, reduced or discontinued on a location-by-location basis. The NWS and other stakeholders will continue to coordinate with USGS state Weather Science Centers to minimize the impact of discontinuing stream gauges," Miller said.

Kottlowski said that he is not worried about spring flooding, but late summer rain due to tropical storms or severe weather could be a concern for towns located along rivers and streams where gauges may be discontinued.

Norris said that if people want to know what they can do to help save stream gauges, they should contact their local elected officials and tell them what they think about the USGS National Streamflow Information Program.

Correction: Initially, AccuWeather.com reported 723 stream gauges at risk for closure due to budget cuts, according to the USGS Surface Water Information website. However, this total was inclusive of all gauges at risk, including rain gauges. According to Mike Norris, program coordinator of the National Streamflow Information Program, there are nearly 300 stream gauges at risk of closure.

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