Cutting budget for river gauges is foolhardy

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: June 16 2011 | 10:44 am - Updated: 2 April 2014 | 7:08 pm in

By Des Moines Register

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In the spring of 2008, officials in Cedar Rapids prepared for a flood on the Cedar River based on reports of river levels upstream at Waterloo. What they didnt know was that heavy rain in the Cedar River watershed between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids was sending a wall of water 31 feet high or nearly 20 feet over flood stage toward the city.

The lack of information meant that Cedar Rapids was not prepared for the magnitude of flooding that ultimately inundated 10 square miles of the city for weeks, a historic disaster from which the city is still struggling to recover.

The lesson for Cedar Rapids, and for every other river city in the state, is that current and accurate information about river levels is critical in protecting communities and their people and businesses against floods.

So it is alarming that the federal government is preparing to cut the budget for installing and maintaining river gauges the devices that provide this data.

The U.S. Geological Survey maintains gauges on Iowa rivers and streams, which provide vital data to a variety of agencies, including the National Weather Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local authorities for flood management purposes. These sophisticated devices measure water level, velocity and volume and transmit that via satellite to the Geological Survey, which then posts the data on the Internet.

They are not cheap: These gauges cost roughly $12,000 apiece to buy and another $14,900 a year to maintain.

Congress established a new national streamflow information program a few years ago to increase the number of river gauges, but the program has never been fully funded. Now Geological Survey officials in Iowa have been told to prepare for successive 10 percent cuts in funding over the next two budget years for maintaining and operating gauges that have just been added in recent years.

The budget cut would amount to a loss of $40,000 or more each year from the USGS in Iowa allocated to the streamflow program. Unless other money can be found by other federal or local government sources to make up for the loss, river gauges will have to be shut off.

That would be a big mistake that Iowa cannot afford to let happen. Too many federal, state and local authorities now rely on the information that almost certainly could save lives and property from floods.

As it is, the majority of the USGS gauges in Iowa are only partially paid for with federal money. The rest comes from contributions from a wide range of entities, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state and local governments, and they will have to kick in if the federal government cuts its share.

The federal cutback is not a big amount of money, but it is wrong in principle. Water respects no political boundaries, and all levels of government rely on hydrological data, so it makes sense for the federal government at the very least to provide a base level of funding for this program, with some local contributions.

But the federal funding levels should be consistent, so the U.S. Geological Survey is not forced to run around Iowa unplugging river gauges when we need them most.

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