News Column

Flood Gauges Jeopardized by Sequester Cuts

April 26, 2013

Just in time for the spring flood season, the federal sequester is threatening to shut off funding for hundreds of stream gauges used to predict and monitor flood levels across the country.

The U.S. Geological Survey will discontinue operation of up to 375 stream gauges nationwide because of budget cuts, the USGS notes on its website. Additional stream gauges may be affected if state and local partners reduce their funding.

USGS is quick to point out it won't shut down gauges now being used to monitor the heavy floods in the Midwest. Robert Mason, deputy chief of the USGS Office of Surface Water, says the agency plans to prioritize gauges used by the National Weather Service for forecasting.

A total of 682 gauges have some level of funding issues (some of the gauges may not be shut off entirely). The USGS, which operates about 95% of the gauges, is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

"Even though the operation of most stream gauges is highly automated, the gauges still require periodic instrument and ratings calibration, communication adjustments, battery replacement and site maintenance (especially after high water events)," Mason says.

"It is a highly field and labor intensive operation," Mason says. He says the total yearly maintenance and upkeep cost of all 8,000 gauges is $150million.

The shutoff of the gauges could start as early as Wednesday. Although gauges have been shut off in the past because of budget cuts, "we have just not faced this drastic a cut in decades, if ever," Mason says.

Flooding kills more than 90 Americans each year, according to the National Weather Service.

Flooding will remain a major concern over the next few days and weeks in the Midwest: Though flooding on the Mississippi River is easing slightly, flood fears are on the rise in North Dakota and Minnesota, primarily along the Red and Souris rivers, the weather service says.

River levels on the Souris and Red rivers in North Dakota are beginning to increase as temperatures in the 60s and 70s allow the snowpack to melt this weekend. Parts of Minnesota and North Dakota remain under as much as a foot of snow in some spots.

Much of the existing snow cover in the northern Plains and Upper Midwest will melt this weekend into early next week, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski. As this happens, he says the water locked up in the snow (the equivalent of 2 to 6 inches and in some cases more) will be released.

Weather service hydrologists project the Red River in Fargo to reach major to near-record stages next week because of melting snow and minor rainfall events.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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