State Agencies to Pay to Keep River Gauges Operating

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – Montana agencies will pay to keep four river gauges operating through September following cuts to a federal program.

The Missoulian reports that Montana Fish, Wildlife and parks and the state Department of Natural Resources decided information from the river gauges is too important to eliminate.

“They determine fishing conditions and how safe it is to float,” Pat Saffell of Fish, Wildlife and Parks told the newspaper in a story published Sunday. “They also show us what kind of water year we’re having, and hydrologists use the past data to predict the future. We also watch the temperature monitoring during drought conditions to see if the river is suitable for trout or not.”

The U.S. Geological Survey planned to turn the gauges off last Wednesday due to the $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts — known as the sequester — that took effect earlier this year at government agencies. The federal agency says it will save about $16,000 per gauge through September.

The four gauges are located on the Bitteroot River just below its confluence with the Clark Fork River, the Jefferson River near Three Forks, the Smith River near Eagle Creek and the Yellowstone River at Miles City.

The gauge on the Smith River has supplied information for 16 years, while the gauge on the Bitterroot has operated for 27 years. The Jefferson gauge goes back 34 years and the Yellowstone gauge has 83 years or records.

Most of the expense in operating the gauges comes from performing regular checks and maintenance.

“We visit these gauges 10 or more times a year,” said Wayne Berkas of the U.S. Geological Survey. “A river is a living entity. As water flows, the channel tends to move, the bottom scours, the current places other material in the path of the gauge, trees fall in. It’s constantly changing, and you can’t simply apply an equation to determine the discharge.”

He said decisions on which Montana gauges to shut down were based on either a gauge having a short history or having other gauges nearby that would mitigate the loss of some river information.

Nationwide, the federal agency operates about 8,000 river gauges at an annual cost of about $150 million. The agency opted to stop operating 375 of them due to the budget cuts.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.