ELIZABETHTOWN — Sen. Charles Schumer is pressing to make money for stream gages permanent — and to increase the amount of funding.
As river and stream levels rise and jump their banks, stream gages provide vital data to local authorities. But funding for them has all but dried up.
The six remaining gages monitoring the Lake Champlain basin are funded only through Sept. 31.
Schumer said the North Country has 31 important stream gages. He held a telephone news conference this week to outline his plan to put permanent budget funding in place for the measuring tools.
He is seeking $36 million for the U.S. Geological Survey stream-gage system, a $7.3 million spending increase.
He is proposing another $63 million for the USGS Cooperative Water Program, an increase of about half a million dollars from the current budget.
The additional money would install 300 new stream gages nationwide.
Schumer said he anticipates “scores” of new gages would be added to New York’s river-monitoring system.
“It can’t be a year-to-year fight,” he said of the ongoing struggle.
“These gages read the water levels and help first-responders gather real-time data. Keeping gages in place is a small price to pay” for public safety.
It costs just over $17,000 to install the equipment, he said.
“This is not a lot of money, in federal terms.”
If the appropriation is approved by Congress, it would go into effect on Oct. 1, preserving the Champlain Basin gage system, Schumer said.
Stream-gage system funding actually comes from a blend of resources.
According to J. Michael Norris, chief of the National Streamflow Information Program, based in Pembroke, N.H., the total USGS stream-gage budget in 2012 was $163.4 million.
“Of that, state and local agencies funded 48 percent; the USGS Cooperative Water Program covered 17 percent; the National Streamflow Information Program covered 18 percent.”
Other federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, accounted for the balance of resources.
Current spending data is not available yet, but 2012 saw an increase of about $5 million in federal spending for stream-flow monitoring, Norris said.
“If the total NSIP program was fully funded, it would pick up 60 percent of the stream-gage funding,” Norris told the Press-Republican.
“The drop (in costs) would come to state and local agencies. But all of their current stream-flow data needs are not being met, and we think more stream-flow gages would be added.”
Cost sharing is an important part of the process, tying together federal and local initiatives.
“By far, the biggest funders of these gages are the state and local agencies,” Norris said.
“There are huge advantages to have state and local agencies partner with us on certain stream gages. It helps keep the entire USGS stream-gaging network relevant to today’s needs.
“State and local agencies have the local knowledge of what is required for the future and for protection of their communities. What I don’t think is great is that I don’t think the federal government is putting in their share.”
Schumer’s plan to secure river-gage resources through the Senate Appropriations Committee would address that shortfall.
“There’s no quick fix to the problems we face,” Schumer said of increasing flood events. “But flood preparedness can go a long way.”
Ward Freeman, director of the USGS’s New York Water Science Center in Troy, noted that this summer has proved disastrous for central New York communities enduring repeated major flooding events.
“Gages give you real-time information. As little as four hours warning can help prevent significant human and property losses from flooding,” Freeman said.
National statistics show 100 people die in floods annually and $10 billion is spent on flood-related damage every year.
Ten percent of that cost — $1 billion — would fund the entire USGS stream gage network for more than eight years, Freeman said.
Gages currently monitored the Boquet, Saranac, Ausable, Salmon and Great Chazy rivers where they reach the lake.
There are no gages currently at any interior points along either the Saranac or the Boquet rivers.
“We work closely with the State Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Conservation, with the National Weather Service and with emergency managers to provide the data to warn residents and keep them informed as conditions change,” Freeman said.
“These gages in the Lake Champlain basin were all funded by a federal earmark through Sen. (Patrick) Leahy’s office for many years. When earmarks went away in 2010, all that funding went away. Funding for NSIP was approved in 2009. But it’s currently funded at 20 percent. If fully funded, it would make a dramatic impact,” Freeman said.
The gages do more than measure water levels and pressure. Data going back in some cases more than 75 years also provides information about how the climate is changing, Norris said.
“Water quality and biological habitat assessment are other measures provided by stream-gage data,” Norris said.
“It is great to have the data there, but there’s no money to sustain the research.”
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Information about the stream-gage system, real-time data and threatened gages for each state is available online at: http://streamstatsags.cr.usgs.gov/ThreatenedGages/ThreatenedGages_seq.html.