As Missourians sorted through the mess left by torrential rainfall and flooding, about 20 percent of the stream gauges the National Weather Service and others use to measure floodwaters are slated to go offline due to a lack of state funding.
The United States Geological Survey Missouri Water Science Center in Rolla maintains 274 real-time gauges — 49 of which are scheduled to be deactivated after June 30.
Funding for the gauges comes from various entities, said Amy Beussink, director of the Missouri Water Science Center, among them the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Conservation and the Department of Transportation. Gauges are paid for individually, and funding varies year-by-year depending on the priorities of the entities partnering with USGS.
The center collects, analyzes and provides water data to entities such as the National Weather Service and the Army Corps of Engineers, Beussink said.
Beussink said "a couple of different partners were dealing with budget constraints," but she was hesitant to say which entities were less willing or able to provide gauge funding. She did note that discussions about the threatened gauges began in late March or early April.
Inquiries made to DNR and the governor's spokesman were not returned Wednesday.
Beussink stressed that finding funding for the gauges was an ongoing task. "It's kind of an evolving process, and oftentimes we end up bringing a lot of different parties together."
C. Shane Barks, deputy director at the Rolla center, said information about water levels provided by the gauges can be used for numerous purposes. The water-level data is used for drinking water management, power plant operation, and infrastructure for dams, levees, bridges and roads, Barks said.
They're also used for "protection of life and property from floods and droughts" and "flood plain management and regulation," Barks said, noting that "real-time data is essential for activities that require rapid decisions, such as the issuing of flood warnings and flood crest predictions by the National Weather Service and the evacuations of persons in flood-prone areas."
The money to pay for the gauges comes from the state and draws down federal funds, Barks said, and it costs $14,600 per year to operate a gauge.
It costs money to maintain the gauges as well as to replace them if they're damaged by an event such as the recent flooding, Beussink said.
"The USGS strives to collect timely and relevant data during extreme hazards such as the flooding that is occurring currently in Missouri, and we are proud of our dedicated staff that are collecting the data during these extreme events," said Doug Yekis, who coordinates the USGS Groundwater and Streamflow Information Program.
Where are these gauges?
They're all across the state. There are several in southwest Missouri, and there are also a few in the bootheel, one outside of Kansas City and some near the Iowa border.
According to the USGS website, some of the stations with gauges have collected data for almost 100 years. Stations in Greer and Van Buren in south-central Missouri — a part of the state hit particularly hard by the torrential downpours and flooding in the past week — both have data on record going back to the 1920s.
Beussink said the gauges can be used to measure historical changes in water levels and provide an opportunity to observe water quality as well. The weather service uses the USGS data to come up with its weather models and forecasts, and the Army Corps of Engineers uses the same information for river and infrastructure management, she said.
A few of the threatened stations are within a short drive of Springfield. Two nearby gauges sit along the Niangua River just west of Lebanon and another collects data along the Sac River south of Stockton Lake.
About four out of every five gauges appear to be safe for the time being, including monitoring stations on the James River and Wilson Creek near Springfield.
The gauges serve an important role during emergency situations such as the recent flooding, but gauges such as those on the Current River can also be used for recreational purposes, such as when canoeists want to know whether a river is suitable for paddling.
It's uncertain whether the USGS will secure the several hundred thousand dollars to continue the use of the gauges, but the organization isn't giving up.
"A lot of interest and concern has been expressed for the stream gages," Barks said in an email. "There is still time for new funding to be made available before the stream gages are discontinued."
Springfield News Leader