Funding cut could increase Eastern Iowa flood risk

BY BRIAN ALBERT | JUNE 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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Potential budget cuts in 2012 and beyond may shut down of roughly 12 flood gauges throughout Iowa, devices that monitor several water variables and are crucial tools for better flood prevention.

Local and national organizations warned against the shutdown Tuesday in front of a crowd of approximately 40 in Iowa City.

“If gauges are removed, adequate river readings would be inaccessible,” said Maren Stoflet, a meterologist for the National Weather Service. “We need to let people know when a disaster is on the way, and we cannot do that without the information the [U.S. Geological Survey] provides from its gauges. It would place people’s lives in unnecessary danger.”

The weather service was joined by the USGS and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Officials from the three organizations warned against the very real dangers that shutting down the water gauges could pose.

Greg Nalley, the chief of the USGS Hydrologic Surveillance Section in Iowa City, said though the equipment is costly — $14,940 a year for a full-output gauge — the benefits are well worth the money.

“They give us tons of information regarding depth, flow speed, and more,” Nalley said.

The USGS pays for 40 percent of a full-output gauge and relies on external donations for the remainder. But if the budget is reduced and the agency can no longer provide its share, Nalley said, he thinks many donators won’t be willing to pick up the slack.

“I’ll beg for money to keep the gauges up,” he said. “I don’t want to lose a single one, and I’ll do what I can to keep them operating.”

The National Streamflow Information Program provides Nalley with $400,000 each year, and all but $12,000 goes directly to the installation and upkeep of gauges. If the proposed 10 percent budget cut is approved — and Nalley said he believes it almost certainly will be — the USGS will lose $40,000 for in its next fiscal-year budget.

For Nalley, that means a loss of around three gauges.

Burlington resident Ron Knoke questioned why the USGS had not made this information more accessible to the public.

“Most people have no idea how much a gauge costs,” he said. “People don’t have any idea how much danger they’re in, and it would be nice to be notified earlier. We’re going to walk out of here in an hour, and we’re not going to have any idea if our gauge is in danger. And we came to the meeting.”

Kevin Richards, a USGS center director, replied, “It’s all at the mercy of funding. We can’t really know specifics until we have the budget finalized. But yes, part of that is on us. We need to do a better job of getting that information out to the public.”

Chris Trefry, a hydrologic engineer with the Corps, said he agreed with Nalley and Stoflet regarding the importance of water gauges. He highlighted in his speech their usefulness not only in flooding but also in construction.

“Stream gauges are the best things you can have for any kind of hydrologic studies,” Trefry said. “They lead to better, more reliable designs for dams, levies, and bridges.”

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