States May Lose Crucial Flood-Predicting Tools
By Jim Malewitz, Staff Writer
More than three months after the heavy rains of Tropical Storm Lee pummeled much of the East Coast, the city of Binghamton, New York, is still rebuilding. During the height of the storm, the waters of the Susquehanna River surged over floodwalls and into the streets, forcing 20,000 people in the area to flee their homes. Cleanup efforts will continue into the spring. The city will get a slice of the $50 million disaster aid package Governor Andrew Cuomo signed earlier in December, but that money won't prevent floodwaters from staging another assault on Binghamton and other cities lying in the Susquehanna River Basin — one of the nation's most flood-prone areas.
Flooding is always a worry along the wide, shallow Susquehanna, which spills its banks yearly and has been doing so with growing intensity in recent years. To people living in the basin, timely weather warnings are essential. But those who have the job of issuing those warnings are worried about what might happen next flood season, when they will likely have fewer tools to do the work.
Gauges in the U.S. Geological Survey's National Streamflow Information Program measure the levels of rivers, lakes and streams, recording critical information used to forecast floods. The system is very much a federal, state and local partnership. In 2009, states and localities combined to spend $69 million on the gauges — almost half of the $146 million it took to operate the network. Now, all three levels of government are cutting back on their efforts. If it can't find some new source of money by March 1, the U.S. Geological Survey says it will shut off more than 30 streamflow gauges across New York, including several near the Susquehanna and other flood-prone areas.
The threatened New York gauges make up just a fraction of the more than 580 stations the USGS may shut down within its 7,800-gauge system. As shifting weather patterns make destructive flooding more common in some parts of the country, hydrologists and weather forecasters worry that cuts to the program won't be worth the approximately $15,500 saved in operation and maintenance costs for each gauge every year.
"This is critical to these communities," says Ward Freeman, director of the New York Water Science Center with the USGS. "This is people's lives and property."
Dangers of shutdown
Floods prompt about 75 percent of all presidential disaster declarations, and in recent years, they've damaged billions of dollars worth of property. The human toll can be especially great in the case of flash floods, quick-setting overflows caused by sudden torrential rains. It was that type of flood that killed at least 26 people in May of 2010 across Tennessee and Kentucky.
But warnings can reduce the human and economic toll of floods, studies by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Service have found. Just one hour of lead time can reduce damage by 10 percent, and longer-term flood preparation, such as building levees and laying sandbags, can save an estimated $163 million nationally each year. To maintain their lead time, communities rely on the National Weather Service, which uses USGS streamflow gauges to forecast floods. "When you lose that gauge, you're essentially flying blind," says Mark Walton, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Michigan. That state turned off nine gauges last year and could lose nine more in 2012. "We're trying to beg, borrow and steal data just to meet our mission," Walton says.
What's most concerning to Walton is when gauges shut down in urban centers, where stormwater, unable to soak through most pavements, runs straight into rivers, putting large populations in danger. Of the threatened Michigan gauges , several operate in or near cities with sizable populations, including Lansing (114,297), East Lansing (48,579), and Battle Creek (52,347).
Byron Lane, who heads Michigan's Hydrologic Studies and Dam Safety Unit, says the state has managed thus far to cut only gauges deemed "low and medium-priority," but any future cuts would eliminate "critical" gauges.
State and local money makes up about one-third of the cost of operating streamflow gauges in Michigan, according to the USGS, and as the state further reduces its contribution, the agency can't keep up and must look outside the government for funding. Interest from conservation groups and private citizens has sparked some optimism that the state can keep a few endangered gauges running temporarily, but Lane says he fears state funding will only plummet in the coming years.
Other state systems are more dependent on state and local funding than the one in Michigan. Local and state funds provide 70 percent of the money for the gauges in New York, and 60 percent in Florida. Florida in particular is facing a massive shutdown. Governor Rick Scott cut more than $700 million this year from the state's five water management districts, which helped fund the gauges. The state, which has faced increasing criticism for worsening water quality, shut off 39 streamflow gauges and dozens of other instruments that measured water quality and groundwater levels.
Some of those gauges shut down in Florida had been running for more than half a century, which, researchers say, means they were the most difficult to lose. That's because gauges aren't just useful for flood forecasting, but for long-term data collection as well. Long-term information is essential for documenting slowly developing climate changes. Shutting off a gauge leaves permanent gaps in data, which, in turn, makes models less precise.
"[Unrecorded] data can't ever be retrieved," says Donald Duke, a professor of environmental science and policy at Florida Gulf Coast University. Duke uses USGS data in assessing effects of water quality policies. Shutting off the gauges, he says, "makes 50 years of effort go away."
In New York and Michigan, several threatened gauges are even older than those lost in Florida. Along the flood-prone Grand River, a gauge in Jackson, Michigan, has been collecting data for 76 years, according to USGS. It's expected to be shut off next September. And in East Lansing, where the Red Cedar River winds through the campus of Michigan State University, a gauge that has collected data since March 9, 1931, is scheduled to meet the same fate. "For 81 years, we felt that gauge was necessary. But then we just got gutted," says Tom Weaver, the USGS data chief in Michigan.
Those who use the gauges — whether for flood forecasting and mapping, academic research, dam and bridge construction, or water resource allocation — largely acknowledge the tough economic realities that threaten the USGS program. Still, engineers and researchers wish more policymakers would realize the tool's importance. But that message is a tough sell in Congress and in state legislatures bent on slashing spending.
"Stream gauges just aren't as glamorous and sexy as some things," says Lane, the Michigan hydrologist. "You need another New Orleans to get people's attention."