posted November 22, 2002
by Jason Robertson

Save a Gauge in an Hour
Background on Streamgaging - Sample Letters

How do we get a gauge on the Fish? It looks like they have an old gauge house downstream on river left. Did they used to have one and it was shut down? With the help of AW, is there a way to get a gauge? I, myself, live 10 minutes from the Fish. I have no problem checking the gauge when people are wondering. BUT, I would love to have a gauge there. It seems whenever the Fish is running there are about 5 or 6 different out of state liscense plates! I'm sure these people would reap the benefits of a gauge. Just curious on some feedback.

Tim aka NYKayak1

Gage on the Bismarck, photo from http://nd.water.usgs.gov/gage/how.html

A light snow is falling and the water and air temperatures combined do not top 70? F, yet a small team of boaters stand in a cloud of breath by the headwaters of West Virginia's Otter Creek. Though the channel is only about four feet wide and eight inches deep, this team knows that there will be water on the river today since the USGS' Dry Fork streamgage is measuring over seven feet. In fact, this day is going to be epic and boaters are going to be running all the local steepcreeks from Red Run to the Blackwater, and easier runs from the Dry Fork to the Shavers Fork.

In October, American Whitewater rescued USGS streamgages from the ax on the Blackwater, Dry Fork, and Shavers Fork. Operations at 18 popular stations were threatened due to proposed budget cuts. We were successful in saving these gauges because so many members and supporters wrote or called the Governor, tourism office, and USGS.

After AW's intervention, the West Virginia Office of Emergency Services hosted a meeting on October 25 with several interested State agencies. This coalition of agencies worked together to identify funding sources and ensure no interruption of gauge records or warnings would occur.

Dear friend of West Virginia,

Thanks for your e-mail expressing concern about the potential closure of 18 water gauges in our state. Your e-mail, among many we received, prompted our office to quickly find answers ourselves. On Friday, Oct. 25, West Virginia Tourism along with several other state agencies and vested parties met to discuss the situation. Below is a statement released late Friday by the lead agency, the state Office of Emergency Services. Here at the Division of Tourism, we hope it relieves any uneasiness you have about the stream gauges. On a personal note, thanks for your continued support of our tourism industry and passion for one of our state's greatest activities on some of the best waterways in the country. If you haven't been to our website lately, www.callwva.com, I encourage you to do so to get the latest on happenings around our state.

Best regards,
Tony O'Leary
Outdoor Recreation Specialist
West Virginia Division of Tourism

Stream gauges to remain open

CHARLESTON, WV -- The West Virginia Office of Emergency Services (WVOES) is pleased to inform you that a cooperative agreement has been reached with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that will permit USGS to continue providing stream gauge data on the USGS web site. This means long-term stream flow data used by citizens, businesses, local governments and other state and federal agencies will remain accessible on the Internet.

Previous reports by USGS stating that 18 West Virginia stream gauges would cease to operate on October 31 were simply not factual. In discussions between USGS and the WVOES, it was never intended for these gauges to be terminated for removed by WVOES. The maintenance agreement between USGS and WVOES is being terminated, transferring maintenance and upkeep responsibility for these gauges to WVOES. These gauges will continue to monitor stream stage conditions for flood warning, as well as stream flow information for historical planning purposes.

The cost savings realized by WVOES in assuming responsibility for these 18 gauges will permit the State of West Virginia to expand the number of stream and rain gauges throughout West Virginia in the coming years. This will provide our state citizens and visitors to the state with even greater flood protection by adding gauges to streams that are not adequately covered or that have no gauges at all.

WVOES recognizes the importance of having stream flow data available for monitoring and predicting flood plains, droughts, as well as for planning a fishing, whitewater rafting or kayaking trip. This need is now balanced with the need to expand the present flood warning system without incurring additional costs.

Why is gauge spelled so many ways?

Streamgage spelling is a schizophrenic art.

While most spellings use the classic "gauge" the "gage" spelling without the "u" has recently come into vogue. The USGS is now using the "u"-less spelling in most locations; however, this has not yet become the standard and most of the USGS partners continue to use the "u".

AW has chosen to continue using the spelling with the "u" when referring to a gauge and the spelling without the "u" when referring to streamgages. AW's spelling reflects the historic standard and is consistent across the decades.


The two examples in the sidebar demonstrate the common range of streamgaging issues that American Whitewater works on for our membership: advocating for new or restored gauges, and saving gauges. Our strategy for working on both issues is direct; we leverage our volunteers and economic interests throughout the State and show the dual values of the gauges for facilitating recreation and improving public safety.

A typical streamgage that provides realtime data costs about $10K to maintain each year. Maintenance includes provisions for a dedicated phone line, removal of logs and other debris that wash up against the structure, cleaning the unit of algae and sediment on a periodic basis, routine calibration, and otherwise making sure that the mechanisms work the way that they are supposed to. Each of these actions require a technician to visit the gauge, which is often in a remote part of the state or far from the technician's office. Typically, the more remote or dynamic the river is, the more it costs to maintain the gauge because it takes more man hours to manage.

Funding for these gauges comes from a variety of sources: USGS, state agencies such as the Office of Emergency Services, federal agencies such as the Army Corps, private dam operators and owners, and even universities or other institutions that are collecting data on streamflow trends. The USGS is the largest clearing house for this information. The agency collects the data from all these sources and distributes it for free via the Internet. Some non-governmental organizations, such as American Whitewater then massage this data and redistribute it in a format that is most useful for recreationists. AW provides this data at www.americanwhitewater.org/gauges/.

When the USGS gauges in West Virginia were threatened in Fall 2002, the agency characterized the contributions of the gauges:
Since 1887, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has operated a National Streamgage Network to collect information about the Nation's water resources. Under this program, the USGS collects the streamflow data needed by Federal, State, and local agencies for water-resource planning and management activities including predicting magnitude and frequency of floods and droughts, determining 100 year flood plains, evaluating and allocating water for public and industrial supplies, designing highways and dams, and permitting sewage and industrial discharges. Real-time streamflow gages are also used to monitor floods and droughts, and for planning recreational activities such as fishing and boating.
AW has long advocated for increased funding for the streamgaging program. As described by the USGS, we have found that the streamgaging network is one of the most effective government programs in promoting public health and safety. Gauges are used to predict and monitor flooding, predict and monitor safe drinking water supplies, predict and monitor instream flows and temperatures for fishery protection, and provide real-time flow information for river recreationists including fishermen and boaters.

Hazard mitigation and reduction begins with the distribution and collection of good and reliable data. Cuts in USGS funding reduce the sensory capacity of the streamgage network and effectively bury the government's head in the sand. Funding cuts come at increased risk to public safety, while also impacting opportunities for river recreation.

AW is working proactively with the USGS to identify the most important recreational streamgages. We are identifying these gauges via hits on our website. These hits take two forms: the first are simple visits to each streamgauge page; and the second are from the gauges that the registered users on our website have selected in their preference settings in the "MY GAUGES" field.

AW's Strategy for Saving a Gauge in about an Hour

STEP 1: The first step to saving a gauge is learning why it is threatened. This information should be available from the District Chief or other District staff. We generally recommend going straight to the Chief though, because as AW Regional Coordinator Don Kinser says, "I like going to the top where I can learn what's going on and make sure my interest is reflected downwards on the people who will be doing the work." Give yourself 5-10 minutes.

STEP 2: Learn who the cooperating agencies are that have historically provided funding in the past for the streamgage you care about, or other gauges in the region who may have a stake in protecting your gauge. Again, the USGS District staff should be able to help you identify those state and federal agencies. Give yourself 10 minutes.

STEP 3: Identify the head of the State Tourism Department and the Governor. We recommend doing a quick search on the "State Tourism Director Contact" and "State Governor Contact" to find this information. Give yourself 5 minutes.

STEP 4: Pull the information together from the first three steps in a short email alerting your paddling partners of the threat. Craft a simple message:
Please help to save this streamgage. The gauge is vital to recreational whitewater boaters and fishermen. The gauge is threatened due to a lack of a few thousand dollars. However the economic benefits to the local community make this a valuable investment. On an average trip to the river I spend $110 in the local community. When paddlers know that the river is at a good height, as many as 20 will visit on a typical day. Etc.
Post this information on Boatertalk and AW Forums. Send a copy to AW's Access Director. Give yourself 15 minutes.

STEP 5: Draft a short letter to the agencies and individuals you identified in Steps 1, 2, and 3. Be sure to make arguments regarding the economic value of the gauge for recreation and tourism, and the public safety value for purposes of flood warning and the safety of instream recreationists such as fishermen. Send the letter and post copies of it in the same places you sent the alerts to in Step 4. Give yourself 10 minutes.

STEP 6: Call the Governor, District Chief, and Tourism Director and express your interest in saving the gauge. Give yourself 15 minutes.

STEP 7: At this point, you could step back and just watch the emails and phone calls roll in from your paddling partners and allies at AW and Boatertalk, or, and this is what we advise, you could try to hit a home run by calling the local state representatives and talking with them too.Give yourself 15 minutes.

Just a handful of calls to the local state representatives from in and out of state will often rattle the representatives and secure promises of saving the gauge.

Good luck!

Gauge on the Bismarck, photo from http://nd.water.usgs.gov/gage/how.html

Sample Letters to Save a Gauge

When was the last time you went to your favorite river without knowing the level beforehand? Probably sometime in the 1990's. Right? How much do you normally spend on a trip to the river for gas, food, & drinks? Probably $10 to $50. Right? Multiply that times 800,000 to 1,000,000 whitewater boaters who boat at least 15 days each year. If you spend a minimum of $10 per trip, then that amounts to a conservative estimate of $120 Million that whitewater boaters contribute to the economy solely on travel expenses as the result of knowledge about river levels. When you add in paddling gear purchases, vehicle maintenance, and other lifestyle purchases, the sum measures in the billions. When you measure the savings from flood prediction and monitoring, reduced insurance claims, as well as provisions for safe drinking water, the number soars into the tens of billions. That is the real value of the streamgaging network to America's domestic economy, and that is our strongest argument for protecting the network for recreation.

When you write a letter or make a call to an agency or representative to protect a gauge explain:
  1. How you use the streamgages for trip planning purposes.
  2. That these streamgages are on some of the best whitewater in the state.
  3. How often you visit the river or area for kayaking, rafting, or canoeing.
  4. How much you spend on an average trip or during the course of the year. The goal is to make the value of these gauges apparent to state's tourism economy.
  5. Also, if you live in the state, write a letter to the editor of your local paper sharing this information, and alerting the editor of the problem this will cause for river recreation and local business in the state.
AW volunteers Adam Cramer, John Tingerthal, Don Kinser, and Tom O'Keefe prepared the following messages to send to USGS and Department of Tourism during the crisis in West Virginia. Please feel free to crib from them if your favorite gauges are threatened. WHen you send your letter, copy AW at access@amwhitewater.org and let us know who you are writing to.


Dear USGS District Chief and West Virginia Division of Tourism:

I understand that operation of some of the river gauges in West Virginia, such as the Blackwater gauge, might be terminated. This would be a great loss for the East Coast angling and whitewater communities, as well as West Virginia's tourism industry.

Speaking as a kayaker, I use the gauges as a critical trip planning tool because these rivers are runnable only at certain water levels (e.g., the upper section of the Blackwater is generally run between 150 and 400 CFS). Although the northern part of West Virginia offers some of the best and most scenic whitewater runs in North America, without a reliable gauge reading via the internet, I would make substantially less visits throughout the year (I live in Washington, D.C., a 3 to 4 hour drive).

More importantly, terminating these gauge operations would adversely impact West Virginia's tourism industry. Upon a favorable gauge reading, I'll likely make the trip with 3 to 4 other people (mostly from the DC area), and we'll each spend at least $50 to $60 in West Virginia on gas, food and lodging. Moreover, these trips often take place throughout the year -- not just during the typical summer tourist season.

Please do not terminate these gauges.


Dear USGS District Chief and West Virginia Division of Tourism:

I am upset that the USGS is cutting many of the West Virginia river gages. I use these gages to plan kayaking trips to West Virginia. As a resident of Chicago, that means 10 to 12 hours of driving. I spend at least 6 weekends out of the year visiting this area. The gages provide extremely important information for me and I would hate to see them go.


Dear USGS District Chief and West Virginia Division of Tourism:

I have just learned that recent reductions in state matching funds is expected to result in discontinuation of 18 stream gauges in West Virginia effective October 31, 2002. Each year I typically visit northeastern West Virginia three time a year, totaling nearly 20 days, to enjoy the awesome whitewater rivers and streams of your great state. The 18 impacted gauges are on some of the best whitewater streams in West Virginia. I am very upset to learn of this situation because I rely on these gauging stations in my trip planning and in determining my itinerary.

I estimate my family and I spend nearly a thousand dollars each year on gas, lodging, meals, etc on these whitewater paddling trips. Without the reliable information provided by these gauges I will be less willing to travel the great distance from my home in Georgia on the chance that the rivers I want to paddle have adequate flow.

You should understand that gauges are extremely valuable to West Virginia's tourism industry and that funding should be restored to insure these gauges remain operational.


Dear USGS District Chief and West Virginia Division of Tourism:

I have recently been notified that several important USGS gauges in the state of West Virginia will be cut from the national streamgaging network at the end of this month. In addition to their important role in safety and providing a long-term data record of high value to hydrologists, several of the gages are extremely important for recreational river users. Although I live on the west coast, I have taken two trips to West Virginia over the past year specifically for the purpose of whitewater kayaking. In both cases access to the real-time gage data was a major factor in planning my trip (during the trip I took in March the data provided caused us to make a last-minute change in plans to paddle the West Virginia streams rather than others we had originally planned to visit in North Carolina). In short, access to the discharge data greatly enhanced the quality of my experience and the efficiency of my trip. Having access to these data is often the deciding factor in whether a short trip to the east coast is worthwhile for me (I most typically fly out for a long weekend).

My two trips this year to West Virginia represented a total contribution of well over $1000 to the local and national economy. On each trip I spent approximately $300 on a plane flight, $125 in local travel expenses, $80 in lodging/camping, $150 in meals/food, and $100 in miscellaneous items. Since we were traveling in a group, the others I traveled with made similar financial contributions to local tourism.

While I recognize that funding is tight and difficult choices have to made, I ask you to carefully consider the value of the stream gaging program for whitewater recreation in West Virginia. The annual cost of maintaining a station is very small compared to the benefit realized by users like myself from across the country. It's unfortunate that while you have made considerable improvements in the accessibility of your data (without a doubt the USGS provides government-funded data in the most useful and accessible format of any agency web site--you truly set the standard!), funding the instrumentation and personnel to maintain it has become such a challenge.

I ask that you work closely with American Whitewater and local paddlers in identifying gages that are of primary importance to river recreation and explore creative solutions for continued maintenance of these important stations.

Gauge on the Bismarck, photo from http://nd.water.usgs.gov/gage/how.html
If you have any questions or concerns about the closure or placement of a streamgage on a whitewater river, American Whitewater is glad to assist. Contact the Access Director at Access@AMWhitewater.org or call 866-BOAT-4-AW (866-262-8429).

Jason Robertson
635 Joseph Cir
Golden, CO 80403-2349