Stream Gauges Help Warn People of Future Flooding

By Michelle Costanza

Stream Gauges Help Warn People of Future Flooding

September 7, 2012 Updated Sep 7, 2012 at 5:00 PM EST

(WBNG Binghamton) On September 7, 2011, we began to see the rivers rise, and rise, and overflow.

The stream gauge network monitors the rise and fall of our waterways to help provide us with early warnings.

The stream gauge network may be one of the most valuable systems for flood forecasting in our area.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission works with agencies such as the National Weather Service and the US Geological Survey, who monitor and maintain 200 of these gauges in Western New York alone.

The data collected from this Flood Forecast and Warning System are used to determine flooding threats and provide early warnings to the public.

SRBC Communications Director Susan Obleski said, "Accurate timing and flood level projection, that's what the system brings you. Without it, the most that the National Weather Service could do, say 'Flooding in Owego might be moderate, severe, minor.' And that's really not enough."

Stream gauges take exact measurements of the flow and river level at 15-minute intervals throughout the day, and some even record rainfall amounts.

This information is vital not only for flood prediction, but for regulating water usage and drought monitoring as well.

"The gauges either work on a pressure system, or many of them have a stilling well as well, there's a pipe that comes from the stream into the stilling well, and it works on a float system, which then turns a little dial and records the gauge height, and the gauge height is transmitted via satellite to our office, and the data is decoded and put into our NWS system," said Lynn Szabo, hydrologist.

Each stream gage costs $20,000 to $50,000 to install and nearly $14,000 to operate and maintain each year,

But the SRBC says the Flood Forecast and Warning System is very cost-effective.

For every federal dollar that is invested in the program, it yields $20 of savings in property damage.

"Two years ago, Congress, as part of its budget debates, decided to eliminate what they call 'earmarks,' and those are add-ons within the congressional budgets, and so when they did that, that eliminated funding for the Flood Forecast and Warning System, and all the stream gauges," said Obleski.

The Commission is working closely with Congress to ensure that funding is secured for the upcoming budget.

Stream gauge data is available online to the public.

And, living in one of the most flood-prone areas of the country, many people routinely review this information.

"It just helps them to get their things out of harm's way, or get their families out of harm's way; they watch the gauge on a daily basis. They all know where to go on the website to get the gauge in their community, and they really depend on it," said Szabo.

Szabo tells us that as members of the USGS fixed the Owego stream gauge just two days after it was ruined in the 2011 flood, a crowd of people formed to cheer them on.