Federal cuts could lead to Iowa flood gauge loss

Photo by Alan Light, Flickr

The Iowa City Press-Citizen reported yesterday that the United States Geological Survey could see budget cuts over the next two years that would jeapordize the future of local water gauges.

The Press-Citizen reports:

Funding could be at risk for stream gauges that Iowa officials and even the general public use to monitor river flow to predict flooding and areas in danger of inundation.

The U.S. Geological Survey could see a 10 percent budget cut each of the next two years under a federal budget proposal. In Iowa, that could mean the loss of six of 30 National Streamflow Information Program gauges. They won’t know for sure until a federal budget gets passed, but it is unclear when that will happen.

“There are some real possibilities we are going to lose some gauges unless someone steps up to the plate,” said Greg Nalley, chief of the hydraulic surveillance section in Iowa City.

About 50 officials from around the region attended a stream gauge network stakeholders meeting Tuesday in Iowa City. The purpose of the meeting, called by the USGS, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Weather Service, was to alert people of the shortfall and to find partners to procure gauges should they lose public funding.

The gauges are critical to predict and prepare for floods, said Maren Stoflet of the weather bureau. The gauges are used to supply information to mapping databases, which show inundated areas when river levels rise.

“The gauges are critical to be able to provide accurate forecasts. Take away any gauges on (a) river, and it would have an impact,” Stoflet said. “Taking away information isn’t going to improve river forecasting down the road.”

The USGS provides only some of the gauges used in Iowa, but some say those devices are the “backbone” of the stream gauge network.

Stream gauges cost between $3,500 and $15,000 a year to maintain.

Ron Knoke, public works director in Burlington, expressed frustration over the uncertainty, including if his area will lose river gauges and how the community will replace them.

“It would be nice to know we have more than a week’s notice that we have to come up with $10,000 or we aren’t going to have a gauge anymore,” Knoke said.

One scenario discussed Tuesday is that the most recent gauges installed would be the first eliminated. That prospect concerned Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids.

The lack of gauges on the Cedar River between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids left officials in Cedar Rapids fighting “the wrong flood” during the devastating 2008 flooding and ultimately escalated damages, he said. Since then, gauges have been installed but could be at risk under the last installed first eliminated scenario.

“If they are talking about 10 percent cuts and getting rid of the newest first, that means we are going to be right back where we were. We want to know what flood we are fighting,” Hogg said. “I am concerned about this.”

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