Friday, September 9, 2011

Defunding Stream Gauges: How Much are Lives and Homes Worth?

During a year of some of the worst flooding the United States has ever seen, spanning just about every state except those in severe drought (such as Texas), the US federal government is planning to shut down 376 stream gages due to 'lack of funding'  (Thanks to @wunderground on Twitter for this link).  Apparently, a USGS stream gage costs around $15,700 a year to maintain, a minimal sum when compared to its benefits.  Stream gages allow for accurate flood warnings, that save lives, livestock and property... allow for flood plans to be estimated more accurately... and provide information on water supply during times of drought.

I'm trying not to get into politics too deeply here, since it is a contentious issue and I feel that this is a non-partisan issue and need.  But, when I think about other things our government and economy expend money and resources on, and how tiny a speck the cost of a stream gage is in the grand picture, I am disgusted.  Are human lives, or our homes and everything in them, or our, businesses, crops, and livestock that are our livelihood... not worth $15,700 a year in each of these watersheds?  Are we, the people of the United States, unable or unwilling to demand that our representative government provide cheap and effective services that protect us from loss of life, or is the system so broken that the government is not at all representative of us any more?

There should be many more stream gages being installed, none being removed, and many more rain gages also being added in upper watershed areas.

If our government is unwilling or unable to provide stream and rain gages, I think we need to look into alternatives.  Perhaps a citizen-science type network of people could be assembled who are willing to invest a lesser sum in an automated weather station (probably under $500.00 - perhaps with a tax rebate or grant?) or some form of 'cheap and dirty' stream gage.  Perhaps state governments or private industry could step in (I know I keep mentioning Google, but I know they could be a part of this).  If all else fails, we need a watershed/flood smartphone/computer reporting network (as mentioned before in this blog I am partial to the iNaturalist / whatsinvasive format).  Even a normal webcam aimed at a $3 yardstick in the creek would be better than nothing (though it was just pointed out to me that it would be impossible to see at night, when floods are most dangerous!)

The VTResponse people are doing an amazing job and helping organize flood recovery in Vermont.  Who is going to step forward to protect us from the next flood?  We have great people at the USGS already willing to process the data and inform the authorities of imminent flooding... but they can't do that without having the data in the first place.


  1. USGS is getting ripped off on these gauges. $17K per year just to maintain? Makes you wonder what they pay for the new installs (probably over $100k.) Govt orgs always out to stuff the pockets of their friends with contracts to build and maintain these things. There is clearly a much better way to do it at a fraction of the cost using integration of off-the-shelf tech.

  2. 15K a year to maintain a stream gage is dirt cheap considering how much we get in return. The gages need to be calibrated, kept free of debris, etc... and the averages include damage during floods, too. If you are privy to a source of cheap, functional stream gages that do the same thing, please do post it here. But, if you just want to slam organizations that are working hard to save your property and lives from flooding, you should probably take your comments somewhere else.

  3. The cost of a stream gage is not only the equipment. The USGS sends people out monthly to take a manual measurement. This insures that the gage's electronic data is accurate and adjusted. The cost also includes the storage, computations, and data streams to the web and other agencies.