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West: USGS streamflow monitoring faces challenges

Budget crunch forces hundreds of stations to shut down, many more threatened by lack of funding

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Scott Hummer, the former Blue River Basin water commissioner for the State Engineer’s Office, checks a USGS gage on Tenmile Creek in Frisco, Colorado.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY —Unless it’s in a bucket or a measuring cup, water isn’t exactly the easiest substance to track. Ever-changing, from vapor to solid to liquid, and ever-moving, from stream to river to lake to ocean, it can be tough to measure.

So for years, ranchers, town planners and even angler and kayakers have relied on a huge network of streamflow gages maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey to help monitor water quality, measure and predict peak spring runoff and flooding potential, or even just the best time run some whitewater or to go fishing. In some places, the streamflow information is critical to helping protect endangered species.

But that network is shrinking, due mainly to budget constraints that already forced the USGS to shut down stations around the country. Just in the past few years, the agency stopped operating 133 water quality stations, many in New Mexico and Florida.

According to the USGS website on threatened and endangered gages, there are 613 stations with funding issues. For those stations that have already been discontinued, extensive efforts were made to find another funding source; however, when no funding was made available the stations had to be discontinued. For those stations at risk for discontinuation, the current funding source has indicated that it can no longer fund the station. Efforts are currently underway to identify another funding source for the operation of these stations; however, if no funding is identified, then these stations will have to be discontinued also.

That loss of critical streamflow information is almost unimaginable to some water managers who rely on the data on a daily basis.

“Every day for 21 years, the first thing I did in the morning was look at stream flow information,” said Scott Hummer, formerly the state water commissioner for the Blue River Basin, in Summit County, Colorado. In that position, Hummer made day to day decisions on turning irrigation diversions on or off, based on stream flows.

At other times, Hummer relied on the data to make sure that local ski areas were meeting their obligations to maintain minimum stream flows during the peak snowmaking season.

Hummer, who now is a project manager for the Colorado Water Trust, said that, if anything, more gages should be going online, given the uncertainty of climate-change impacts and the continually increasing demand on the resource.

“That information is vitally important. Those local gages, in my opinion, are invaluable. the need for accurate gaging is paramount,” he said, singling out a recent West Slope-Front Range water deal that requires accurate measurements so that both sides can uphold their obligations.

“We need to accurately know what we have so that we can manage it,” he said, adding that more collaboration is needed to ensure that all stakeholders pay a fair share toward the cost of establishing and maintaining the stream stations.

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3 Responses

  1. Budget crunch. Talk about having priorities backwards, goodness, I wont go there, as it’s Friday, I just discovered my e-mail address being wrong, so, no record for a couple of comments. Must have been the stir fry smear on my right lens. Growing ols sure has its moments.

  2. During surveys I conducted the last two years, I saw many water measuring systems falling into ruin along rivers and streams. They are clearly marked on maps we use for reference. Given the importance of water in the Western states, it would seem very important to restore funding for this critical function to one of our most important agencies.
    Perhaps if Congress were to stop earmarking billions of dollars to build bridges to uninhabited islands the money would magically become available? Or the funds could come out of their full salary pensions-for-life for serving a single term? I am sure that would buy a few water monitoring systems critical to the very life’s-blood of our country.
    It is surprising to me that the USGS does this monitoring. It is the responsibility of the US Forest Service to maintain the lands and rivers that produce our water supplies, and they are a hard-working and competent department that would be able to manage such a system. Perhaps there is more wrong with the system than just a supposed lack of funds?

  3. As a hydrologic engineer who studies historic steamflow I can’t begin to tell you how sad this makes me feel. We really need more stream stations throughout the US. The more data we have the better models I can run. The lesser quality of the model the more people pay for flood insurance because of the statistical uncertainty.

    Mark, the USGS does a great job of providing the monitoring data to the public. My favorite is the Google Earth kmz file that I can use to provide real-time data and historic charts.

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