Funding elimination forces closure of early warning flood gauges: One site in Granville, one in Lake Champlain

B y Derek Liebig

 

Two flood gauges which served as early-warning systems during this year’s heavy flooding will be turned off in March, because there is no more funding available for them.

One of the gauges is located on the Mettowee River, 110 feet downstream from the bridge on County Route 21 in Middle Granville, and has been in operation for more than two decades and monitors when water levels are approaching their crests.

Portions of the Mettowee River were more than a dozen feet about flood level after Tropical Storm Irene hit the region in August, causing major flooding.

A second gauge, on Lake Champlain, approximately 2.5 miles north of the state boat launch on South Bay and four miles north of the village and Lock 12. That gauge helped monitor this spring’s floods, when water levels reached historic levels and were several feet over flood stage.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) announced earlier this fall that 31 gauges across New York will be shut off effective March 1, 2012. The agency was forced to make the announcement after funding dried up.

The closure of the gauges could have deep repercussions for the area’s residents who live alongLake Champlainor theMettoweeRiver.

The gauges are used to warn residents of low-lying areas of the potential threat of flooding. When you see a news report that says a river will crest its banks at a specific location and time, it’s using data from those gauges to make that determination.

Bill Cook,WashingtonCountydirector of Public Safety, said his department relied heavily on those gauges during both of this year’s flooding events.

“We were constantly trying to find out what the gauges were saying. They give us an indicator of whether things are getting better of getting worse. It plays a big part in emergency response,” Cook said. “The timing of this is not real good, it’s never a good time, but this is worse.

This is a very serious issue.”

Cook said they have other methods of monitoring water levels but they aren’t as efficient as the gauges, which could be checked from their offices in Fort Edward and provide up-to-the-moment data.

The gauges typically record data at intervals between 15 and 60 minutes and are transmitted to the U.S. Geological Survey every one to four hours by satellite, phone or radio and are available for viewing within minutes.

“This is very disappointing. I think it’s a crazy decision and we made it known that we thought it was not a good idea,” Cook said. “It’s a crazy place to save money. It would be best if they rethought their decision.”

Gary Frida, a hydrologist with USGS, said the agency operates around 250 gauges across New York State and each has a specific funding source, withh the agency providing matching funds.

For instance, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation may help support certain gauges while the National Weather Service funds others.

Frida said the gauges have traditionally been funded by earmarks, which have been eliminated by Congress.

The local gauges were selected to be turned off because they have always been included on an earmark supported by Senator Patrick Leahy ofVermont, but that earmark no longer exists.

“If the program was funded fully, or even at 50 percent, some of these gauges wouldn’t need to be shut off,” Frida said.

He estimated that each gauge costs approximately $15,000 per year to operate.

Besides their use in monitoring floods, Frida said the gauges are also used to monitor water quality and the rate of pollution, track long term changes that could be a result of climate change, are used in culvert and bridge design, flow studies in drought and high water events and for recreational pursuits such as boating and fishing.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) uses them when they are conducting flood insurance studies.

Because the gauges provide historical data, they are also used by scientists to study the 100 year flood levels. Frida said that those occurrences are not static and are constantly evolving, meaning the 100 year flood is not the same today as it was in 1960.

Without the gauges, scientists will be unable to study how those events evolve.

Unfortunately,New Yorkis not the only state expected to experience water gauge closures. Eight gauges inVermontand 580 gauges out of a national network of 7,800 are expected to be turned off next year, meaning important scientific data and a useful tool for warning people of floods will be lost.  

New York State Senator Chuck Schumer, a staunch opponent of the decision has been urging government officials to restore funding, but it remains to be seen if those efforts will bear any fruit.

The USGS has also been seeking financial support to keep the gauges operational, but have yet to receive any, making it likely that on March 1, the gauges will be shut off.

“I’ve been here for 34 years and this is one of the worst situations I’ve seen,” Frida said.

 

 

 

 

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