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Potomac Stream Gages May Shut Down

Potomac Basin Reporter, July/August 2008

Link to map of Potomac River Monitoring Sites

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has warned in an August message on their website that proposed federal budget cuts may force the agency to shut down up to eleven stream gages on the Potomac River. Some stream gages on the Shenandoah River and its tributaries may lose some water quality measurements. The USGS operates the gages, some of which have been providing data for 70 years.

The gages are part of a network of monitoring points along the Potomac River and its major tributaries that for decades have provided stream flow records that serve many users. The network provides data used by the National Weather Service to forecast floods and warn river communities as far ahead in time as possible. Some of the gages provide information critical to the operation of Jennings Randolph Reservoir, which releases water down the Potomac during droughts, ensuring a reliable water supply for the Washington Metropolitan Area. The gages also are used by recreational white water canoeists and kayakers, as well as anglers. The information the gages produce also is used to create computer models that can enhance the way river flows are managed during floods and droughts. Gage data also is used in basic research, engineering and design, and specialized studies, such as determining changes to hydrology from land use change.

The ICPRB, using funds from the metropolitan areaís major water suppliers, helps sponsor several stream gages that are critical to ICPRB-managed water supply operations during droughts, when releases from Jennings Randolph Reservoir on the North Branch Potomac boost river flows and ensure adequate water to meet drinking demands. The ICPRB has been contacted by several individuals asking why the agency cut funds to the gages. The ICPRB continues to support those gages. Some of the gages that may close are very helpful to ICPRB, both for managing reservoir releases and in conducting research that brings added efficiency and reliability to drought operations. Additionally the overall picture of the basinís hydrology will become fuzzier if the gages are shut down on the September 30 date, which marks the end of the federal fiscal year.

This plan, should it come to, pass, would leave the river without a rated gage above Point of Rocks. This would force the discontinuance of National Weather Service (NWS) stage crest forecasts for the shut down sites, and would degrade forecast quality from Point of Rocks down to the Washington metropolitan area due to the reduction in upstream data. The plan would significantly hinder flow management operations by ICPRB when a drought occurs and if flow releases are required.

The problem is not limited to the Potomac basin. The USGS has been grappling with budget problems for several years, and has been working with a national network of more than 800 cooperating agencies that fund about 70 percent of stream gage costs. Use of USGS stream gage data continues to grow despite budget cuts.

For many reasons, the loss of a cohesive gaging network of both flow and water quality is important to many agencies and stakeholders working to keep the river healthy and able to meet the many demands society has placed on it. Those concerned about the status of the gage network in the Potomac watershed should contact their U.S. senators and urge them to provide support for the gage system.

The Potomac Basin Reporter is pubished by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, www.potomacriver.org