USGS Losing Some Critical Stream Gauges

May 3, 2013

While this stream gauge is still operating, three more like this one were shut down because of budget cuts.
Credit Aaron Kunz / Earthfix

A federal agency is planning to shut down down as many as 150 stream gauges nationwide. The first round of closures started this week. Those gauges provide life-saving flood warnings and even how bad a drought is.

Stream gauges are tools that help monitor how much water is in our rivers and streams. These are small outbuildings standing beside waterways. Each one shelters data-gathering equipment.

For the U.S. Geological Survey, these stream gauges help scientists do their jobs. “We’ve been doing it so long in the state that to lose a gauge would be like losing a member of the family almost," says John Clemens with the USGS in Washington. "The next fiscal year is a big question mark. We don’t know, we’ll certainly face it with as much seriousness as this year.”

Clemens says Washington managed to avoid shutting down any stream gauges in his state. Using equipment and maintenance funds to help keep the gauges running through the end of the fiscal year that ends October first.

But Idaho and Oregon weren’t so lucky. Each had to turn off three gauges due to an across board budget cuts known as the sequester.

Stream gauges have different uses across the nation. Here in the northwest the gauges are used to monitor drought conditions. They determine how much water will be available for the hundreds of hydroelectric dams. Farmers rely on these monitoring devices to determine when they can water their crops; The recreation industry use them to decide when to fish and when to go rafting.

Many of the stream gauges in Idaho and Oregon are old. Some more than 100-years-old - known by the USGS as sentinel gauges. When you lose one of those types of gauges, you lose the continual stream of data it provides.

One of the stream gauges being shut down in Idaho is here on Lapwai Creek in North Idaho.
Credit Aaron Kunz / Earthfix

Michael Lewis is head of the U.S. Geological Survey in Idaho. He spent the last few weeks trying to determine which ones would have the least impact on the state. Lewis says that was a nearly impossible task, since the gauges work together as a system.  “These stream gauges are part of a design network," says Lewis. "So there was a stated purpose behind selecting them. There was an importance already going into just starting these gauges up and running them.”

One of the gauges that has been shut down in Idaho is on Lapwai Creek. It’s one of the important streams for the reintroduction of coho salmon in north Idaho.

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