Some river gauges could be victims of budget cuts

Published 8:22 pm Saturday, March 16, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Some of the stream and river gauges used around the country to help forecasters predict flood and drought could be discontinued as a result of automatic federal budget cuts that went into effect this month, officials said Friday.

The U.S. Geological Survey said 11 of the roughly 100 gauges it operates in Minnesota could potentially be shut down due to budget cuts. Nationally, 375 of the 8,000 USGS-operated gauges are at risk. USGS spokesman Dave Ozman said the agency doesn’t know the full impact of the cuts yet, or when the gauges might be affected.

The gauges provide key information for the National Weather Service as it collects data to forecast potential flooding.

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“They are the eyes in the field for us,” weather service hydrologist Diane Cooper. “Without that river gauge, we can’t provide forecasts.”

The USGS’s river gauges measure water elevation every 15 minutes, and about every six weeks the river flow is measured. But during flooding, river flow measurements are taken much more frequently. The USGS compares that river flow and elevation data, which it uses to create important forecasts at each gauge’s location, Cooper said.

The information is transmitted to a satellite and comes into the weather service almost continuously — which is important because, she said, “river conditions can change quickly.”

Ozman said some river gauges are co-funded through federal, state or local dollars. Eleven USGS river gauges in Minnesota are completely funded by federal dollars, so those are the ones that could face a shutdown.

They include gauges at: the Pigeon River near Grand Portage, the Kawishiwi River near Ely, the Prairie River near Taconite, the Crow River at Rockford, the Whetstone River near Big Stone City, the Yellow Medicine River near Granite Falls, the Minnesota River at Morton, the Mississippi River at St. Paul, the Mississippi River at Prescott, the Root River near Pilot Mound, and the Cedar River near Austin.

“Those are the ones we’re looking at. Our hope is that we wouldn’t have to cut all of those,” Ozman said. “These gauges are all important to the folks who are served by them.”

The USGS is evaluating the effects of budget cuts on all of its programs, including seismic monitoring and volcano and land slide monitoring. In addition, Ozman said, the USGS plans to issue a notice to all employees that a furlough is also being considered, but that any furloughs would not exceed nine days.

Ferris Chamberlin, the chief of water management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul District, said river gauges are important, especially with the spring flooding season right around the corner.

“You couldn’t have picked a worse time,” he said.