ALBANY — Given New York state's wild year of water — from unprecedented spring floods fed by melting snows to late-summer tropical storms that scoured parts of the Adirondacks and Catskills — it would seem bad timing to start turning off gauges that measure water in rivers, lakes and streams.
But the cash-strapped U.S. Geological Survey agency is planning just that next spring for more than 30 gauges in the Hudson River, Champlain Valley and Southern Tier, some of which have been recording for decades.
One gauge slated for closure is on Lake Champlain just north of Lock 12 of the Champlain Canal in Whitehall, Washington County. That gauge helped document that this spring's floods, which kept the lake above flood stage for some two months, shattered records that were at least 150 years old.
Another gauge at Ausable Forks in the Adirondacks has been recording for more than 80 years, and captured data on this summer's devastating tropical storms.
"This community has some low-lying homes. During (Tropical Storm) Irene, the Ausable River jumped Route 86 and changed its channel, going through some homes," said John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council. He said decisions on where residences are allowed to be rebuilt will depend on updated maps projecting the course of future floods — and that such maps will be harder to make accurately without information from the river gauge.
"We use these gauges all the time," said Tim Mihuc, director of the Lake Champlain Research Institute at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. He said the devices have both immediate value — in helping project flood levels and issue advance warnings — and long-term value by helping track changes in rivers and lakes caused by man-made climate change.
"When you see on the news that the river is due to crest at such-and-such a time, they are relying on these gauges," he said. "And this information is critical for science. If we are going to understand future changes due to climate change, the only way is to monitor these gauges."
Gauge measurements have a variety of uses beyond flood warning and long-term mapping. The data is also used in designing new bridges to withstand expected water flows, monitoring of water quality, and helping people who check daily water levels on the Internet to plan fishing or canoeing trips, said Ward Freeman, director of the USGS New York Water Science Center, based in Troy.
It costs about $16,000 a year to operate a gauge, a sum the USGS budget can't cover without outside support, he said. That has left a national network of gauges dependent on a yearly hodgepodge of assistance from the U.S. Congress, state and local governments, and even local not-for-profit groups.
The 31 gauges in New York set to shut down March 1 are among more than 580 on their way out nationwide; the total network includes some 7,800 gauges. USGS has been collecting such water data for about 120 years.
During the last decade, the geological survey has closed more than 850 gauges nationwide after outside financial support ceased, said spokesman Mike Norris.
On the Ausable River, the Alice Falls Hydro Corp. power plant for the last two decades has used a former paper mill dam to generate electricity. The dam is 12 miles downstream of a gauge set for closure.
"If this goes off, it would kind of blind us," said plant operator Brad Knapp. "We would not have any way to know how much water was coming through the river on its way to us."
In New York, gauges due to be turned off are a potential casualty of the end of congressional earmarks, said Freeman. In the name of fiscal austerity, the most recent Congress ended such spending, which opponents had derided as political pork.
It was earmarks that were supporting most of the USGS gauges now on the chopping block. "Many people think of a 'bridge to nowhere' or some similar project when they hear 'earmarks,' but the truth is that many of the programs funded by earmarks were extremely important," said Freeman, referring to the notorious Alaskan span.
It would cost about $430,000 to maintain the threatened gauges. "Compared to the cost of flood damage like we have seen this year, it's a drop in the bucket," he said.
"This is a very important issue to us. It is a case of penny-wise and pound-foolish," said Janet Thigpen, who heads the policy committee of the New York State Floodplain and Stormwater Managers Association.
"A number of these set to be discontinued are flood forecast points, and we know we need good forecasts," she said.
Eighteen gauges slated to be closed are located along the Susquehanna River or its tributaries in the Southern Tier, which were hit with severe flooding in 2006 and against this year by tropical storms Irene and Lee.
Thigpen said those gauges had been supported financially by the National Weather Service and later the state Department of Environmental Conservation, neither of which are able to continue paying.
"We support more funding for USGS, for a shorter list of high priority gauges necessary for flood projections," she said. "Each year, the USGS spends a lot of staff time trying to locate outside funding for gauges. They could be doing other things with that time."
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