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Spending cuts may deep-six crucial flood gauges

This handout photo provided by the US Geological Survery (USGS), taken July 5, 2011, near Westhope, N.S., shows the Souris River at the peak for the great Souris River flood of 2011, with equipment stored in cooler bolted to roof of gage house because water level was above gage house shelf. More than 100 crucial gauges that warn of imminent flooding or lack of needed water will soon be shut down, as part of the federal government’s automatic budget cuts. USGS officials tell The Associated Press that stream gauges will be shut down across the nation starting next month. Some are in the nine states threatened with sudden Spring flooding. In rivers where flooding is imminent _ such as near Fargo, N.D. _ officials are scrambling to keep needed monitors working and make the cuts elsewhere. (AP Photo/USGS)

This handout photo provided by the US Geological Survery (USGS), taken July 5, 2011, near Westhope, N.S., shows the Souris River at the peak for the great Souris River flood of 2011, with equipment stored in cooler bolted to roof of gage house because water level was above gage house shelf. More than 100 crucial gauges that warn of imminent flooding or lack of needed water will soon be shut down, as part of the federal government’s automatic budget cuts. USGS officials tell The Associated Press that stream gauges will be shut down across the nation starting next month. Some are in the nine states threatened with sudden Spring flooding. In rivers where flooding is imminent _ such as near Fargo, N.D. _ officials are scrambling to keep needed monitors working and make the cuts elsewhere. (AP Photo/USGS)

Peoria Maintenance Engineer Jim Clark, right bottom, monitors the sand bag wall holding back the Illinois River from recent flooding Wednesday, April 24, 2013, in Peoria, Ill. The Illinois River finally crested Tuesday at 29.35 feet, eclipsing a 70-year record in Peoria. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Steve Peters, property manager of the Lakeview Apartments, which is surrounded by flood waters from the Illinois Rive, uses a make shift bridge to access dry land Wednesday, April 24, 2013, in Peoria Heights, Ill. The Illinois River finally crested Tuesday at 29.35 feet, eclipsing a 70-year record in Peoria. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Water pours over part of Dickson Mounds Road near the junction with Illinois 78/97 in Fulton County and spills into a nearby field, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. (AP Photo/The State Journal-Register, Chris Young)

This aerial view shows levees and the downtown seawall protecting Beardstown from near-record water levels on the Illinois River Wednesday, April 24, 2013. According to the National Weather Service, the river is predicted to reach a record crest of 29.9 feet on Saturday. (AP Photo/The State Journal-Register, Chris Young)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — More than 100 crucial gauges that warn of imminent flooding or lack of needed water will be shut down starting next month as part of the federal government’s automatic budget cuts.

Some are in the nine states threatened with spring flooding, U.S. Geological Survey officials said in interviews with The Associated Press.

In rivers where flooding is imminent, such as near Fargo, N.D., officials are scrambling to keep needed monitors working and make the cuts elsewhere. Details are still to be worked out, officials said.

Jerad Bales, the agency’s chief scientist for water, said at least 120 gauges, and as many as 375 in a worst-case scenario, will be shut down because of the mandatory cuts known in Washington budget language as sequestration.

“It’s a life and property issue. It’s a safety issue,” Bales said in a telephone interview.

Agency flood coordinator Robert Holmes said that without a full fleet of stream gauges, it is harder to warn people about flooding. For example, he said, the Illinois River was rising fast a few nights ago and the National Weather Service forecast was so dire that officials figured it wasn’t worth fighting the flood if they were going to lose anyway.

But then new stream gauge data showed that it wouldn’t quite be as bad and that the levee could be strengthened enough to hold. So far it has worked, he said.

There are 8,000 gauges across the country, paid for by a combination of federal, state and local governments. The federal government last year spent nearly $29 million on gauges, while other governments pitched in $116 million.

The sequester cuts 5 percent from the federal share and that means shutting down a handful of gauges in each state.

Because it is a joint program, decisions on which gauges to shut down are being made only after federal and state officials meet.

For example, USGS officials originally proposed shutting four gauges in North Dakota, including two on the Red River which is facing what might be a record flood. After meeting with state officials, those two gauges will stay working, but two others may be closed, said Gregg Wiche, who runs the USGS North Dakota Water Science Center.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the Red River gauges are crucial not just to weather forecasters, but to the public. Gauges are monitored at times on an hourly basis because “our level of protection is based on what the river is doing,” he said.

In Illinois, 10 gauges have hit record high levels, with 53 others at or above flood levels, according to the USGS.

James Lee Witt, who ran the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Clinton administration during the 1993 Mississippi flooding, said, “There are as many as nine states that will be impacted by spring floods and this not the time to make such harmful budget cuts.”

Paul Higgins, a meteorologist who is associate director of the American Meteorological Society’s policy program, said cutting federal programs that help the country avoid natural disasters is “a costly mistake.”

The gauges will be shut down at different times in different states, starting in May in Idaho and Maine, according to the USGS.

Water levels are important for monitoring drought and keeping nuclear power plants on the river operating, USGS officials said. In Idaho, fisherman and whitewater river rafters use monitors to tell them where they should go, said Michael Lewis, head of the USGS Idaho Water Science Center.

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Online:

USGS on stream gauges: http://tinyurl.com/77jgzbw

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Seth Borenstein can be followed at http://twitter.com/borenbears

Associated Press

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