Gauge that measures river in danger of funding cuts
THURMOND -- Responding to the federal budget sequestration, the U.S. National Park Service was forced to slice and dice various services they provide, including full funding of the river gauge along the New River.
Avid recreational types and commercial rafting outfitters consider the gauge, which is located near the railroad tracks in Thurmond, the most widely used gauge in the state. Some say suspending service at this particular gauge would be devastating from a logistical and safety standpoint.
The U.S. Geological Survey maintains the state's 144 river gauges and records hydrological data that can be seen on the USGS website, www.waterdata.usgs.gov. This data includes water flow, stage and volume.
The Thurmond gauge in Fayette County is the only gauge along the New River. Various commercial rafting outfitters, including ACE Adventure Resort and Adventures on the Gorge, use the data from that gauge to determine if the river is safe for their whitewater expeditions. Many kayakers and rafters nationwide look at the data from the Thurmond gauge to get an idea of what the water will be like underneath the New River Gorge Bridge, a section of the river that attracts more than 120,000 rafters each year.
The USGS can authorize to pay up to 50 percent of the river gauges' operational costs as long as there are additional federal, state and local funding partners. In West Virginia, there are more than a dozen gauges that have been defunded, and therefore are not calibrated annually and can only record stage levels. Those gauges that have continued to be funded record both stage and volume levels and are said to be recalibrated up to six times a year in order to refine their numbers.
The gauges record water data between 15 to 60 minute intervals. That information is transmitted via satellite to USGS offices every one to four hours. All current and historical data can be viewed on the USGS website.
Patricia Kicklighter, New River Gorge National River superintendent, said the National Park Service has historically funded the river gauge along the New River but because of budget cuts, the service could not continue to fund the gauge 100 percent.
"The USGS raised the operational cost of the gauge and our budget went down," Kicklighter said. "We notified the USGS in April and they helped fund the gauge through the remainder of the fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30."
Kicklighter said the parks service could contribute a third of the gauge's operational cost.
When the geological survey was notified from the parks service about the funding cut, a notice published on their website read:
"After September 30, 2013, data collection at this gauge (Thurmond) will be discontinued due to funding reductions. Although historical data will remain accessible, no new data will be collected unless one or more new funding partners are found."
Doug Ackerman, a kayaker from Fayetteville, said he was checking the data from the Thurmond gauge when he discovered the notice.
"During paddling season, I check this particular gauge up to fives times a day," Ackerman said. "I was not happy when I read that. To suspend service at a gauge that is used by many people is foolish."
Ackerman emailed Shaun Wicklein, supervisory hydrologist for the geological survey, and inquired about the cost associated with keeping the Thurmond gauge operational.
Wicklein said the average annual operation and maintenance cost for a geological survey streamflow monitoring station, such as the one in Thurmond, is $15,000. He said the monitoring and calculation is a complex and labor-intensive activity.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Wicklein said the $15,000 figure he quoted Ackerman includes satellite time, recalibration several times a year, as well as equipment upkeep and maintenance. A detailed list of each line item that figures in to the $15,000 cost was not provided.
Don Beyer, a private river user who serves on the West Virginia Whitewater Commission, said the commission represents all commercial raft companies in the state and the threat of losing data collection from the Thurmond gauge was a topic of discussion at their meetings.
"From an economic standpoint, the Thurmond gauge is crucial," Beyer said. "It wasn't a big surprise that the USGS was threatening to suspend service at hundreds of gauges around the country because of budgetary reasons. The question, however, was why they chose the Thurmond gauge in particular?"
The geological survey website indicated that up to 375 river gauges across the U.S. were being threatened of service suspension because of funding reductions. The Thurmond gauge was the only threatened gauge in the state.
Beyer said the parks service agreed to put forth a third of the gauge's operational cost. The geological survey agreed to pay a third as long as another third, or $4,800, was found.
Beyer said the Whitewater Commission wanted to pay toward the operational cost but wanted to come up with a figure they could sustain each year. It was decided that the commission would agree to pay $1,000. The West Virginia Professional River Outfitters Association agreed to pay $2,000, the Fayette County Commission would pay $1,500 and the West Virginia Wildwater Association would cover the remaining $300. In total, the annual operational cost of the Thurmond gauge through the 2014 fiscal year is $14,400.
Beyer said the USGS initially reported to the Whitewater Commission that the total operational cost would be $17,000, but they reduced that figure after numerous talks with representatives of the whitewater community.
"They lowered the cost by $2,600 and my question to the USGS is how do you get a discount," Beyer said.
Dave Bassage, chief of staff of ACE Adventure Resort, said although the price tag is significantly high, it would still be cheaper to fund the USGS gauge than it would be to install their own gauge along the New River.
"We don't have the technical know-how to erect a gauge and keep it operational," Bassage said. "It would be easier and cheaper to satisfy the needs of the USGS and use the data from their gauge."
Bassage said someone at ACE is checking the data from the Thurmond gauge at least once a day. He said rafting outfitters are more concerned about the water data between March and November -- the months in which users navigate the river.
Bassage said with the current economic downturn, their resources are shrinking and the whitewater industry, as a whole, is seeing a decline nationally. He said it could be difficult in the coming years to hodgepodge money together and continue to help fund the Thurmond river gauge.
"Whitewater is not as popular as it used to be," Bassage said. "The figure quoted by the USGS is not a one-time fee. It is an annual fee so it will be challenging each year to come up with funds and satisfy the USGS."
The Thurmond gauge has been funded through the 2014 fiscal year. Bobby Bower, executive director of WVPRO, said he is working to raise public interest in the gauge and is looking for funding partners that would keep the gauge operational in the coming years.
"We don't want service suspended at the Thurmond gauge," Bower said. "This gauge has a huge economic impact on the area. It is a key component to keeping people safe while they are on the river."
The state's river gauges are not only used by river users, but they are also used in predicting floods and drought. The four gauges along the Greenbrier River were erected in response to the major flood that affected many communities in 1985. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses gauge data to monitor water levels and flow around their locks and dams.
Contact writer John Gibb at email@example.com or 304-348-1796.