State FWP will take over federal river gauges

2013-05-04T22:33:00Z 2014-08-04T19:08:53Z State FWP will take over federal river gauges

River lovers relax: A planned shutdown of several federal streamflow gauges in Montana didn’t happen – despite warnings to the contrary.

The U.S. Geological Survey intended to turn off four gauges, including one on the Bitterroot River just below its confluence with the Clark Fork River, on May 1. The move was intended to save $16,100 per gauge through September as part of the federal sequestration spending reduction.

But Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation officials stepped in to keep the gauges running. FWP Region 2 acting supervisor Pat Saffel said the statistics each provides were too valuable to lose track of.

“They determine fishing conditions and how safe it is to float,” Saffel said of the gauges. “They also show us what kind of water year we’re having, and hydrologists use the past data to predict the future. We also watch the temperature monitoring during drought conditions to see if the river is suitable for trout or not.”

USGS operates about 8,000 river gauges nationwide, at an annual cost of $150 million. The sequestration cutback affects up to 375 gauges. The move raised concerns in many Midwest communities that depend on those gauges for flood warnings.

In addition to the Bitterroot River gauge, USGS planned to turn off the monitors at Jefferson River near Three Forks, the Smith River near Eagle Creek and the Yellowstone River at Miles City. The Yellowstone gauge has 83 years of records, while the Jefferson gauge has 34 years, the Smith has 16 years, and the Bitterroot 27 years.

USGS water data section chief Wayne Berkas said those gauges were picked either because they had relatively small history files or they were close to other gauges that could cover the region. For example, the Yellowstone station has nearby gauges both up- and downstream from Miles City.

The expense comes from the need to regularly check and maintain the stations.

“We visit these gauges 10 or more times a year,” Berkas said. “A river is a living entity. As water flows, the channel tends to move, the bottom scours, the current places other material in the path of the gauge, trees fall in. It’s constantly changing, and you can’t simply apply an equation to determine the discharge.”

The money also pays for archiving, adjusting and publishing the data. USGS streamflows are available on the Internet with close to real-time accuracy, and can also be researched remotely. Berkas said some rivers, such as the Missouri at Fort Benton, have data going back 125 years.

If an inspector finds a river has changed conditions near a gauge, that requires an adjustment in the measurement program. And that may require USGS personnel to recalculate several months of previous streamflow readings to reflect the changed conditions.

Montana has 218 USGS gauges, but only 39 are operated exclusively by the agency. The rest are funded through multi-agency agreements, which limited the number USGS could choose from for savings.

“I’m extremely grateful for the state agencies that temporarily provided support,” Berkas said. “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have this information for the rest of the year.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at

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