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Environment | Water

Why It's Getting Harder To Deal With Droughts And Floods

BOISE, Idaho — The government’s automatic budget cuts are taking down up to 150 of the nation’s stream gauges — devices that provide life-saving flood warnings and help scientists track drought conditions. The first round of nationwide closures started this week.

These streamside outbuildings shelter data-gathering equipment so it can be fed to satellites. They track temperature, stream flows, and pollution levels.

Stream gauges aren’t getting the same sequester-cut attention as airport control towers or Headstart classrooms. But for scientists, it stings to see them swept away by spending reductions.

“To lose a gauge would be like losing a member of the family, almost,” said John Clemens of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The USGS managed to avoid shutting down stream gauges in Washington state, where Clemens works. Idaho and Oregon weren’t so lucky. Each had to shut down three gauges due to across-the-board-budget cuts known as the sequester.

Scientists use stream gauges to determine how much water will be available for the hundreds of hydroelectric dams. The data helps drive decisions about when farmers should draw water from rivers to water their crops; The recreation industry use stream-gauge information to decide when to fish and when to go rafting.

Watch: Meet One Of Idaho’s 100-year-Old Stream Gauges

Many of the stream gauges in the West are more than 100 years old; they’re known by the USGS as sentinel gauges. Even if the stream gauges being shut down are brought back on line, the sequester cuts will results in gaps in data that had been continuously collected for decades.

One of the gauges that has been shut down in Idaho is on Lapwai Creek. It’s one of the important streams for the reintroduction of coho salmon in north Idaho. That gauge is located about 3/4 of a mile from where the Nez Perce Tribe just recently introduced 500,000 hatchery-raised salmon. Data from the stream gauge there helped the tribe determine when stream levels were sufficient to accommodate these juvenile fish.

Read: 100-Year-Old River Gauge Still Has Something To Say

During the summer, the water on Lapwai Creek also runs warm. The gauge notifies the tribe when Lapwai Creek runs too warm for salmon.

Michael Lewis is head of the USGS in Idaho. He spent the last few weeks trying to determine which ones would have the least impact on the state if they had to be shut down. Lewis says that was a nearly impossible task, since the gauges work together as a system.

“These stream gauges are part of a design network,” Lewis says. “So there was a stated purpose behind selecting them. So there was an importance already going into just starting these gauges up and running them.”