Hey, Congress, We Probably Need to Keep our Flood Warning System Funded

Just before spring flood season, major budget cuts leave our waterway monitoring system impaired.

What happens if the Yellowstone River—seen here in July 2011—floods? Because of the sequester, the flood-monitor system, known as streamgauge, is being shut down. Look out down river! (Photo: Reuters)

May 10, 2013· 2 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Riddle me this. What helps save lives, prevents $1 billion a year in property losses, monitors floodwaters and enables bridges to be built?

The streamgage network, a little-known monitoring system run by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), provides real-time data about water flow in American rivers and streams, and now faces sequestration-related budget cuts that will impair its functioning.

USGS has announced that 375 of the nation’s nearly 8,000 stream gages will be decommissioned in the near future, a move experts believe will make it harder to accurately predict floods, address areas of drought and issue water-quality warnings.

“The streamgage network is a sound science tool,” says Clarke Rupert of the Delaware River Basin Commission, an agency that uses data from the gages to measure water quality. “In order to make good decisions about managing our water resources you need good data,” Rupert tells TakePart. “The streamgage network has been described as a stethoscope for America’s rivers.”

The loss of 375 gages will affect parts of the country that have seen frequent floods in recent years, as well as those that have suffered droughts. Few states will be unaffected.

In Montana, four stream gages are on the chopping block, after federal budget cuts left state and local agencies scrambling to pick up operational costs. John Kilpatrick, the director of the Montana Water Science Center, says his agency faced the difficult decision of identifying which gages to discontinue.

One gage slated for decommissioning, on the Yellowstone River near Miles City, has been in use for 83 years and lies in an area of the country that is subject to flooding.

“We do have the rainy season coming on, and two years ago we had a lot of major flooding in the southeastern part of the state. The stream gage near Miles City is right in the vicinity of where those heavy floods took place,” Kilpatrick says.

Stream gages also help officials manage reservoirs in areas of the country where water is scarce, provide information used to regulate commercial and recreational fisheries, and are important sources of data for the engineers who are building infrastructure to withstand floods and other natural disasters.

Stream gages are funded partially by the USGS, and partly by state and local partners.

Kilpatrick says his agency is actively looking for state agencies that could step in to keep the four stream gages in Montana running. “We value the data and want to see it coming in. None of the gages are unimportant by any stretch of imagination,” he says. But during challenging economic times, non-federal partners are also strapped for cash.

In February, 52 different organizations signed a letter addressed to the U.S. Congress asking that stream gages be insulated from budget cuts, pointing to the “repetition of storms, flooding, and droughts that our nation faces.”

Organizations that signed included the American Society of Civil Engineers, Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, Western States Water Council and other multi-state agencies and environmental organizations.

The total annual cost to run the nation’s 8,000 streamgages is $150 million.

Rupert says, “On many counts the stream gage network is a really important resource we need to continue to invest in.”

Aside from the streamgage network, what other environmental protections need to be shielded from sequestration cuts? Let us know in the Comments.