Government Affairs Report: Diminishing Financial Resources for the Nation's Streamgaging Network (4/99)

The following column by GAP Senior Advisor John Dragonetti is reprinted from the April 1999 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

Water was certainly a critical factor in the expansion of the nation into the arid west during the last century. In order to appraise existing water resources to support the desired settlement of the region, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) initiated a streamgaging program in 1889 to monitor eight western river basins. Streamgaging is a method for measuring how much water is flowing in any given waterway. That inaugural network evolved into a nationwide operation that satisfies agricultural and industrial requirements, residential growth, hydropower production, navigation, and flood forecasting. Because of its many uses, the streamgaging network grew steadily from the beginning of this century into the 1970s. Virtually from its inception over 100 years ago, the program has been a partnership, with a substantial part of the funding coming from a wide range of state, local, and federal agencies. While the demand for streamflow information continued to increase in response to emerging environmental, recreational and endangered species issues, financial support for the network began to decline over the past two decades. Although many agencies were able to increase support for the network, the federal side of the USGS program continued to have its appropriations reduced to the point where its share of the costs has decreased from 42 percent to the present 33 percent. These fiscal cutbacks combined with physical damages from natural hazards have resulted in a decrease in the number of streamgaging stations from 7,400 to about 7,000 today. The reduction in funding also has restrained a modernization effort to equip stations with satellite telemetry to provide necessary real-time information to a host of data users.

The Network Serves Many Customers
The network presently serves numerous local, state, regional, and interstate water authorities; the private sector; and several federal agencies. A portion of the network is supported by a partnership between the USGS and federal, state, and local agencies through the Federal-State Cooperative Program. Among the many federal agencies using the network are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and -- perhaps of greatest consequence to the nation's citizenry -- the National Weather Service (NWS). One of the primary reasons for expansion of the network was the catastrophic flooding that plagued the nation in the early part of the century. The information from the network is critical for the NWS to forecast potential flooding and thus reduce losses of life and property. Although floods of significant magnitude and duration are rare occurrences, they often induce high human and economic costs. It is estimated by the National Flood Insurance Program that 18,000 communities and 15 million people may be at risk from flooding.

Access to network data is not restricted to organizations. As a result of technological advances, real-time streamflow data can also be obtained by anyone with internet access through USGS web-servers from the 4,000 USGS streamgaging stations presently equipped with satellite telemetry.

While the general public may be aware of flood forecasting and mitigation as a key element of network operation, streamgaging provides information for many important purposes. The states can use such data in the allocation of interstate waters and to determine the amount of water transferred across state lines or international borders; the amount of water moving from one water basin to another one downstream can be ascertained; information on watershed water quality can be obtained; Wild and Scenic Rivers designations can be resolved; the data may aid the development of interstate compacts, court decrees, and international treaties; critical habitats or ecosystems may be classified; and hydrologic characteristics for major construction projects can be achieved.

Congress Addresses the Issue
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies acknowledged the problems confronting the streamgaging network and communicated the following to the USGS in a report accompanying the fiscal year 1999 appropriations bill, H.R. 4193:

"The Committee has noted the steady decline in the number of streamgaging stations in the past decade, while the need for streamflow data for flood forecasting and long-term water management uses continues to grow. The Committee requests that by November 30, 1998 the Survey provide a report describing the goals and current status of the streamgaging network and an evaluation of the ability of the network to meet its goals."

The USGS delivered the requested report to Congress on November 30, 1998. That report, entitled "A New Evaluation of the USGS Streamgaging Network," is available by contacting the USGS or visiting their website.

In recognition by the states of the need to maintain a viable national streamgaging network, the Association of American State Geologists adopted a resolution at their 1998 annual meeting urging the USGS and the other federal agency users to make the network a national priority. Anyone wishing to register their support for the network and its modernization program should contact members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees or their congressional representatives.

Acknowledgment: Robert Hirsch, Chief Hydrologist, USGS, and Gail Wendt, Chief, Communications Manager, USGS Water Resources Division.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.

Posted May 10, 1999

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