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Full disclosure: I just happen to be an employee of the U.S. Geological Survey so I probably know more about this than the average Joe. This entry represents my opinion only, and not the opinion of the USGS.

My sister sent me this link today. It's a blog entry by Jeff Masters, one of the co-founders of the popular Weather Underground site. Jeff reports on recent record flooding in Oklahoma City, where 8-11 inches of rain fell yesterday. This flood left 136 people injured.

Four days earlier, at least twenty people lost their lives Caddo Gap, Arkansas when a sudden flash flood wiped out a campground in the early morning.

Both of these extreme weather events probably had global warming contributing to the disaster. After all, the more heat in the atmosphere, the more water can be absorbed and at some point fall. Meanwhile, hundreds of stream gauges nationwide maintained by the USGS, and which are used by NOAA to predict floods, are being cut nationwide, including in both Arkansas and Oklahoma. This pennywise and pound-foolish approach may result in further loss of life.

The first thing to understand is that the USGS does more than detect earthquakes. Water is also a huge part of its mission and it monitors the thousands of rivers and lakes across the country. The USGS has this site where, if so inclined, you can look up water levels of streams and lakes near you or across the country.

Unfortunately, the way the law is written, most of these stream gauges require some sort of matching funding, usually from states, counties and other local cooperators with a vested interest. Of course, states are currently under enormous budgetary pressure. So they are cutting their funding for stream gauges. As Jeff says in his blog:

With over 50 people dead from two flooding disasters already this year, now hardly seems to be the time to be skimping on monitoring river flow levels by cutting funding for hundreds of streamgages. These gages are critical for proper issuance of flood warnings to people in harm's way. Furthermore, most of the northern 2/3 of the U.S. can expect a much higher incidence of record flooding in coming decades. This will be driven by two factors: increased urban development causing faster run-off, and an increase in very heavy precipitation events due to global warming.

To get an appreciation for the size of the problem, look at this map of discontinued or threatened stream gauges on the USGS web site:

List of Threatened Streamgages

As Jeff says:

According to the USGS web site, river stage data from 292 streamgages has been discontinued recently, or is scheduled for elimination in the near future due to budget cuts. In Tennessee, 16 streamflow gages with records going back up to 85 years will stop collecting data on July 1 because of budget cuts. Five gages in Arkansas are slated for elimination this year. Hardest hit will be Pennsylvania, which will lose 30 of its 258 streamgages.

You don't need a rocket scientist, or even a hydrologist to see the problem here. To make predictions of the future, we need to know what happened in the past. By removing these stream gauges, the country is losing a valuable historical information. In the short term of course you need to know what very recent water levels are and how fast they are rising or dropping to make flood predictions. Moreover, since NOAA uses USGS stream gauge data for flood predictions, by retiring these gauges, it's like we are choosing to make ourselves blind, or at least worsen our vision.

Stream gauges are doubtless not cheap but most can be maintained for a year for less than the cost of a new compact car. They have to be maintained and monitored, which means even after they are put in the USGS has to send out hydrologist periodically to service the station. Some 9,000 of these gauges periodically broadcast recent streamflow information. If all these gauges are discontinued clearly the impact will be felt.

You can see a graph of the event in Arkansas on the Caddo River here:


At least 20 people died on the Caddo River. Fortunately, the gauge on this river is not one of those scheduled to be cut. I do not know if NOAA issued a flood warning for the river. Perhaps the rain fell too quickly to give a proper notification, or no one was available on site monitoring the river to give warning. It does appear that procedures could be improved that might have saved some or all of the lives lost on the Caddo River.

One thing is for sure: you cannot save lives without data, and NOAA cannot create flood forecasts without data from various stream gauges that are out there. I know money is tight, but with states cutting their funding for these stream gauges, in a way it's like they are telling their citizens they are getting out of the public safety business.

Shame on 'em.

Originally posted to Guy Noir on Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 07:08 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (13+ / 0-)

    Many an insightful opinion and observation can be found on my blog Occam's Razor.

    by Guy Noir on Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 07:08:16 PM PDT

  •  The states need more fed stimulus money (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock, mataliandy

    Medicaid funds are being slashed too hurting poor people's health.

    Republican extremists want to continue budget cutting to cause a Darwinian battle of survival of the fittest.

    Yes, the stream gauges need to be funded. Te Feds should pick up the whole tab for a year.

    look for my DK Greenroots diary series Thursday evening. "It's the planet, stupid."

    by FishOutofWater on Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 07:16:35 PM PDT

    •  Just a drop in the bucket (6+ / 0-)

      Really, these gauges are pocket change. It should be intuitive that they have great value. Ideally the federal government would select and fully fund these gauges, requiring no matching contributions. Then these unfortunate scenarios would be less likely to happen.

      Many an insightful opinion and observation can be found on my blog Occam's Razor.

      by Guy Noir on Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 07:18:44 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Another small project being cut... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Yet, we cannot slice a dime from the heinous way we spend for war?

        Yet another example of our country's safety net of federal services being know, like that Volcano monitoring technology that was deemed unnecessary...

        Government employees! Listen up! The Afghanistan and Iraq wars aren't going to make Americans safer, ever.

        These monitoring technologies are what keep good people safe at home.

        Please, learn that 9-11 doesn't compare to the Sh!t Storm Mother Nature can throw at us as randomly and often as she can.

        The price of this system has got to be equal to a single tank, or maybe a box of those Hellfire missiles we keep raining down (horribly) in Pakistan, wouldn't you think?

        I am happy to be alive and trying to do my best to help out.

        by ToKnowWhy on Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 10:07:27 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  How Do You Expect Obama To Cut Middle Class Taxes (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mataliandy, RJDixon74135

    close the deficit, fund bankers and keep people from drowning too?

    Too many people anyway.

    Thank you for the diary.

    Best,  Terry

  •  most towns dont even have (0+ / 0-)

    most towns dont even have enough money for 4th of July fireworks this year.

    (regarding the bank mess) They want to cure the patient but not deal with the disease.

    by dark daze on Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 07:34:09 PM PDT

  •  Is There Some Reason They Seem to Be Concen- (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    trated near population density?

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 07:36:57 PM PDT

    •  Hmm (0+ / 0-)

      It's good to have gauges near population centers so the impact of flooding in a densely populated location can be known with some precision. At least that's my guess. I am not a hydrologist.

      Many an insightful opinion and observation can be found on my blog Occam's Razor.

      by Guy Noir on Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 07:38:50 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  My guess (0+ / 0-)

        is that they're cheaper to maintain if they're near a population center.   'Specially if there's a USGS or NOAA office there so personnel wouldn't have to travel much to get to them.  

        Recreational thinking. We should do more of it.

        by cevad on Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 08:18:33 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Yeah pound foolish in discontinuing the gauges. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    It appears that none in Iowa will be discontinued.  There's no chance in hell that the State would stop this due to the flooding we had 2 years ago, today.  (Cedar River in Cedar Rapids hit ~33 feet on 6/13/08, flood stage is ~12 feet, last record height ~19 feet more than 50 years ago.  this is approx because 1. the gauge failed on the 13th and 2. it was damned close to going over the max height mark on the gauge before failure and it was replaced with a bigger gauge.)

    You are correct in that the costs of these monitoring systems are truely a drop in the bucket as far as Federal budgets go.  We need to par the military budget before we par down anything else.  I'm just glad that our local tv station has a weather department that cares and has set up a network of 'spotters' in the viewing area to report data back to the station.  But, I'm not sure if that includes river and stream levels.

    •  During flood events (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mataliandy, RosyFinch

      The USGS will often send out scientists to measure the peak flows. It's often good to get a "second opinion" as automated gauges may not be accurate, or may wimp out during major flood events.

      Many an insightful opinion and observation can be found on my blog Occam's Razor.

      by Guy Noir on Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 07:42:48 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yeah, there were people all over the place during (0+ / 0-)

        that flood.  There's lots of debate about that flood, but having a working gauge was not one of them, nor the need to replace the one damaged.  IIRC, another gauge was added to the system a little up stream, somewhere between Waterloo and CR.  Everyone was particularly focused on the Coralville Dam and when the spillway would be topped.  It was topped by a foot.

        I forgot to add in the first post, it looks like several along the Missouri between Iowa and Nebraska are being taken offline.  Not a good thing for St. Louis!!!

  •  As someone who lives along (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RosyFinch, nchristine

    the Upper Mississippi River, I am acutely aware of the value of stream monitoring.  The river isn't really subject to flash flooding, but without the data from the monitors, any flood could be a "flash" flood.  The whole point is to have information to avoid the kind of disasters we've seen recently.  It can only get worse with less data.  

    Those who want(ed) to drown government in a bathtub are getting their wish.  They have set things up so that government really can't do what it's supposed to do, which will be touted to prove the point.  It's a wicked, self-fulfilling prophecy...

    -7.62, -7.28 "Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly." -Langston Hughes

    by luckylizard on Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 08:17:01 PM PDT

  •  These are very useful (0+ / 0-)

    and are followed closely by fisherman and/or Kayakers in my area.  It save a lot of gasoline by allowing people to be aware of stream conditions and stay at home if the conditions are not right for them.  They need to be maintained.  They are tremendously useful.

  •  I was born and reared in Oklahoma City (0+ / 0-)

    and my mother still lives there.  The recent flooding was frightening for her; I was on the phone with her a half-dozen times that day.

    Of course the Republican legislature in OK is cutting every dime possible that's not already promised to someone's brother-in-law or someone else's pet project to "create business" in the state, so what can be done to make sure Oklahoma doesn't defund streamgauges and monitoring?  Send a link to this blog to the local TV meteorologists?  The (Democratic) governor of the state?  The National Weather Service in Norman?

    This is great information - but what are we to do with it?  Seems like there should be something we can do.

    "In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican." - H. L. Mencken

    by SueDe on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 10:55:31 PM PDT

  •  So sorry to have missed this (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    This is important! I live in Arkansas, and know how the flash floods can really catch people. We lose people regularly from them, usually people from out of the area.

    You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you. - Eric Hoffer

    by splashy on Thu Jun 17, 2010 at 02:24:35 AM PDT

  •  Most important information I've read this week (0+ / 0-)
    As an educator I use data from these stream gauges (available through all the time. It's a shame! I can, at least, encourage my teachers to contact their representatives to indicate how important they are.

    Thanks for writing this--sorry for the late response.

    Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur.

    by MrMichaelMT on Thu Jun 17, 2010 at 03:37:30 AM PDT

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