By JEFF MEYERS
---- — PLATTSBURGH — With heavy rainfall and flash-flood warnings peppering the North Country lately, many residents are focused on water levels in lakes and streams.
Significant changes in the currents flowing into Lake Champlain are recorded by a series of stations located in several streams and in the lake itself. These are called stream gages (that’s the U.S. Geological Survey spelling).
Stream-gage records provide a wide range of people and agencies with statistics to determine how they should respond to rising water during potential flooding.
But the stations are again in jeopardy of closing due to budget cuts.
“The U.S. Geological Survey will discontinue operation of up to 375 stream gages nationwide due to budget cuts as a result of sequestration,” Keith Robinson, director of the New England Water Science Center, said in a statement posted on the agency’s website.
“Additional stream gages may be affected if partners reduce their funding to support USGS stream gages.”
One of those partners, the Lake Champlain Basin Program, has funded the operation of 16 gages — 10 in Vermont and six in New York — since 2010, when the federal government decided to cut off funding for the program.
“In February 2013, the LCBP’s Steering Committee agreed during an annual budget discussion that the LCPB would no longer provide financial support for the gage network,” Eric Howe, technical coordinator for the Basin Program, told the Press-Republican.
The annual cost to operate those stations was between $125,000 and $250,000 annually, Howe noted, and Basin Program officials believed they could not continue spending that without hurting other programs.
Each station costs around $15,000 to operate annually.
MANY USE DATA
The lake basin has a total of 46 U.S. Geological Survey gages in operation, many of them funded through New York state or Vermont.
“They are pretty important,” Howe said of the gaging system.
“Watershed organizations use them regularly. Towns use them during flood events to determine whether municipalities are at risk during flood events. Kayakers and canoeists use gages to determine if the water is too high or too low.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses data from the gages during late summer and early autumn to plan its annual lamprey-treatment program in Lake Champlain tributaries and deltas.
Officials can’t treat if streams are too high or too low, and knowing the flow of streams helps determine how much lampricide to use during applications.
Scientists are also interested in stream-gage data in identifying the flow of phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients into Lake Champlain. Increased levels of nutrients promote plant growth in the lake, including higher potential for dangerous blue-green algae blooms.
The U.S. Geological Survey website includes updated information water flow and height at each station.
For instance, a gage on the Ausable River near AuSable Forks showed a dramatic rise of several feet in the water level on June 28, when heavy rains caused flash flooding in the area.
New York stations slated to be closed by March 1, 2014, include those on the Great Chazy and Little Chazy rivers, the Salmon River south of Plattsburgh, the Little Ausable River, Putnam Creek near Crown Point and one in Lake Champlain near Whitehall.
All of those sites have been in operation for at least 16 years, with the Great Chazy River having been active for 69 years.
At this point, a stream gage at the Saranac River being funded by the National Weather Service will remain in operation, as will stations on the Ausable and Boquet rivers being funding by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Also, Vermont will continue to operate more than 20 stations with help from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. The City of Montpelier funds two stations on the Winooski River.
The U.S. Geological Survey continues to identify which stream gages will be impacted by budget cuts.
“The USGS and over 850 federal, state and local agencies cooperatively fund the USGS stream-gaging network, which consists of over 8,000 streamgages,” Robinson said on the website.
“When budget fluctuations occur, the network is impacted.”
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TO LEARN MORE
For more information on the U.S.G.S. National Streamflow Information Program, visit http://water.usgs.gov/nsip.