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US Flood Monitoring Program Out of 'Crisis Mode' but Still in Jeopardy

A federal program that maintains stream gauges across the United States is no longer in "crisis mode," its manager said.

However, the network of gauges, which stands as sentinels for flood forecasting and warning, is still in jeopardy because of a lack of funding.

As many as 300 gauges were faced with closure under the federal sequestration in 2013, but other federal, tribal, state or local agencies stepped forward to cover the costs, said Mike Norris, the chief of the United States Geological Survey's National Streamflow Information Program.

The USGS lost only 100 stream gauges as a result.

"We're in better shape now," Norris said. "We have 850 partners. They stepped forward and said, 'We want to keep these stream gauges running.'"

Another reason the program is in better shape is that it received a modest increase for 2014, but it's still at 28 percent of full funding, Norris said.

In addition to flood forecasting and warning, agencies also use the gauges for water quality monitoring and management, infrastructure construction (bridges, roads, culverts), water system planning and management, floodplain mapping and recreational activity management.

One of the agencies using the data is the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The commission, under a state-federal mandate, manages the water resources of the basin through an approval process for water diversions and withdrawals.

The Susquehanna River starts in Cooperstown, New York, and flows 444 miles to Havre de Grace, Maryland, where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay.

"The commission utilizes long period stream-flow data during water withdrawal project review and approval to evaluate the capacity of a particular stream to provide sustainable withdrawal," Commission Hydraulic Engineer Benjamin A. Pratt said. "Additionally, the commission uses stream-flow data to identify onset of low-flow conditions in the basin and direct operations at regulated projects based on current stream-flow conditions."

Pratt said that only two stream gauges have been lost in the New York portion of the basin, which has not caused much concern as of yet with flood forecast and warning. Of greater concern is the loss of 63 real-time rain gauges that provided valuable ground truth capability to river forecasters.

New upgrades to radar do allow meteorologists, in particular hydrologists, to more closely estimate rainfall, Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said.

"Rain gauges are very helpful in verifying that the radar estimates are correct, that is, 'ground truth,'" Kottlowski said. "However, new technology (radar and even satellite) have been tested and calibrated to the point that they can supplement the loss of those gauges."

"Automated stream and river gauges, not rain gauges, help tell how rivers and streams are rising. The loss of these kinds of gauges would be very devastating," Kottlowski said.

Not all is rosy for the stream gauge program, Norris said.

The USGS' cooperative water program, which shares costs with other agencies, has been level funded for at least 10 years, he said.

"The other agencies are paying more of a percentage of the cost," he said. "They just can't afford to pay for it."

The average stream gauge costs between $16,000 to $16,500 a year to maintain, Norris said.

Fully funding the program would keep about 4,800 USGS stream gauges in place, totally fund the cooperative water program and add about 1,500 new gauges to the system. It would take about $87 million to do so, Norris said.