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Patrick Springer, Published March 15 2013

Spring flood predictions may be hampered by budget cuts

FARGO – Forecasters’ predictions of this spring’s Red River flooding will be hampered by federal budget cuts that will force an undetermined number of stream gauges to be shut down.

The shutdowns will be required by cuts from the budget sequester that will hit the U.S. Geological Survey and Army Corps of Engineers, which cooperate with other agencies to maintain a network of stream gauges.

The instruments are used by the National Weather Service to make flood predictions and by the corps to operate dams.

Nationwide, the U.S. Geological Survey has warned that 375 of more than 8,000 gauges will be discontinued once the cuts hit. The USGS has yet to approve a plan for eliminating some of its gauges.

“We don’t yet know what the timeline is going to be,” said Dave Ozman, a spokesman in Denver for the USGS district that includes North Dakota.

With the spring flood season looming, and a possible major flood along the Red River, the timing “is not good,” Ozman said.

The USGS faces cuts of 5 percent, but since the fiscal year already is almost half over, the effective cut will range from 8 to 10 percent, he said.

Similarly, a 10 percent cut for the corps effectively doubles to a worst case scenario of 20 percent, said Ferris Chamberlain, director of water management for the corps in St. Paul.

The weather service’s contribution to the gauge network is providing telecommunications from satellites. Since the satellites already are in orbit and transmitting signals, that service will not be disrupted, officials said.

The USGS, corps and National Weather Service are consulting one another to minimize the impact of closing down gauges, officials said.

The Army Corps of Engineers maintains some of its own gauges for operating its dams, and an official has a plan in place to discontinue up to three of 33 gauges it helps operate in the Red River system if forced by budget cuts.

One of the gauges is on the Otter Tail River diversion near Wahpeton, which will decrease the amount of information for forecasting flood crests in Wahpeton along the Red River and downstream in Fargo, said Chamberlain said.

Another gauge could be taken out of service along the upper Sheyenne River near Warwick that is used to manage the Baldhill Dam on Lake Ashtabula.

“You can still regulate but not as well,” Chamberlain said.

When stream gauges are lost, flood forecasters have less information to make their predictions, he added.

“Our gauge network is pretty tight right now,” Chamberlain said. “Believe me, I don’t want to cut them before a flood.”

Steve Buan, service coordination hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s North Central River Forecast Center, said forecasters rely heavily on the gauges.

“We certainly don’t want to lose any of the information sources we have out there,” he said.

“It would have impacts,” Buan added, referring to any gauges removed from service. “I can’t give you any specificity to what it may impact,” since the cuts still aren’t clear.

“In terms of our network, we’re going to do everything we can to provide the information to protect lives and property,” said Gregg Wiche, who directs the USGS Water Science Center in North Dakota.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522