November 25, 2011

Time running out for USGS stream gages


AUSABLE FORKS — Seventeen critical river and lake gages used to measure water level and flow around Lake Champlain are slated for removal next spring.

Managed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), they are part of a system funded with an earmark from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) for years.

The money is gone.

But officials believe continual river monitoring is critical for regional emergency services planning, scientific research and proper roadway engineering.

The eight regional gages tagged for removal in March 2012 on the New York side of Lake Champlain are on the Great Chazy River in Perry's Mills; the Little Chazy River in Chazy; the Salmon River in South Plattsburgh; the Little Ausable River near Valcour; the Ausable River near AuSable Forks; the Boquet River in Willsboro; Putnam Creek east of Crown Point Center; and on Lake Champlain north of Whitehall, according to the Geological Survey.

A ninth gage is south of Lake Champlain on the Mettawee River.


Ward Freeman, director of the Geological Survey Water Science Center in Troy, said the data sets from the gages go back decades, providing important statistics on the waterways' rise and flow.

The Ausable River site has been monitored for 82 years and the Boquet for 73 years.

"These are important long-term records that help you understand impacts from a variable and changing climate. If we are to understand how to be able to size culverts and bridges so they don't get washed out, you need stream-gage information to come in with stream-flow statistics," he explained.


The stream-gage funding cycle actually ended Sept. 30.

"We're looking every day for resources," Freeman said.

Many people think of the "Bridge to Nowhere" when they hear the word earmark.

"But the truth is there are some pretty important projects funded by earmarks, like flood gages," Freeman said.

The sites in the region slated for deactivation are part of a larger list of 31 closures pending statewide that cost approximately $429,000 a year to maintain.

Freeman said the eight Lake Champlain stream gages cost $134,000 to operate annually.

Some, including a water-level meter in Rouses Point and a river-level monitor in AuSable Forks, will remain in place, but they do not measure stream flow.


"Partner agencies fund specific sites, so that is why some sites are still funded and some are not," Freeman explained. The Rouses Point site, he said, "was originally funded through the (Leahy) earmark but was saved from being shut down when the International Joint Commission stepped up and agreed to fund the site. We are hopeful that this is a long-term funding solution for the Rouses Point site.

"The other USGS program that could support the lake-level gages and stream gages is the National Streamflow Information Program (NSIP), established to meet identified federal needs for streamflow information," he said in an email. "Many of these federal needs tie into local needs, such as for flood forecasts. Currently, there are no unallocated NSIP flow funds to take on additional stream gages. The NSIP is federally funded at this time at about 25 percent of planned full funding."


The gage stations feed data in real time to scientists, meteorologists and emergency services personnel, among other river users.

"Flooding is the largest, most costly natural disaster this country deals with every single year," Freeman said.

Clinton County Emergency Services Director Eric Day concurred.

"As the forecast calls for storms in the spring and in winter when we get a quick thaw, we watch the gages constantly. If I lose this tool, we lose our forewarning and some of our situational awareness."

During Irene, Day said, the data proved critical to public safety.

"We got a call from the (National) Weather Service saying the river is going to rise quite a bit higher than they initially predicted. I immediately went to the USGS web page, reviewed the gage data, and we got AuSable Forks Fire Department and town supervisors on the phone and made decisions about evacuating more people."


It's not just a tool for prediction.

Swift-water rescue decisions are made based on flow rates, Day said.

"When fire departments do swift-water rescue training, they look at these gages to see what the flow rate is, so while they're out there, they know what 4,000 cubic-feet-per-second feels like. It gives the first responder the ability to make a judgment call in what type of equipment to deploy; if it's even safe to deploy; or if there's another means to employ in a rescue."

Day said they use the Perry's Mills and Ausable gages constantly during the spring.

Ice jams show up as a sharp spike in water flow and indicate flooding is imminent.

Brad Knapp, hydroelectric plant operator at Alice Falls, just above Ausable Chasm, uses the stream gage every day.

It is located in a green plywood box on stilts next to the river.

"They have a transducer that transmits the data out to the USGS website," he said of the setup.

"If I'm able to predict when the river's going to come up, I can set how much water we put through the turbines. And that flow data helps us meet our U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife requirements."


A constant measure of water volume is critical for studies of river health, according to Connie Miller, executive director of the Ausable River Association.

"At a time when understanding how the river works is more and more important to our communities, it's unfortunate to reduce the information we collect that could actually build our knowledge and strengthen our management," Miller said.

If no fiscal solution is found, Geological Survey will close the stations in March and remove the instrumentation.

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