Federal Cuts Threaten Equipment For Flood Warning, Pollution Research

Aug 26, 2013

A federal budget squeeze threatens to cut off funding for equipment that researchers use to predict floods and pinpoint the amount of pollution flowing into Lake Champlain.

Ten stream gages in the Champlain watershed are scheduled to be turned off next month unless another funding source is found.

Denise Smith is with Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, a local non profit that’s trying to improve the water quality of Missisquoi Bay in northwest Vermont by working with local farmers. Her group uses two gages on the Rock River as part of a multi-year project to assess the effectiveness of phosphorus control efforts.

“And so we have a really good baseline of data right now, in terms of what’s going into, what’s happening between those two monitoring stations,” she said. “And if we lose funding and those gages are no longer there then it basically kills the project because you lose your scientific measurement tool.”

Smith’s concern is shared up and down the New York and Vermont side of the Lake Champlain watershed.

In Vermont alone, 10 gages could go dark on Sept. 30 with the end of the federal fiscal year.

“It’s just the most foolish thing to be doing, honestly,” said Marty Illick, executive director of the Lewis Creek Association, a watershed group that’s focused on water quality issues further south on Lake Champlain.

Illick said the gages are essential for educating the public about how much phosphorus runs off the land and into the lake.

“What we’re finding, when we do our outreach to people and municipalities, we find that they want to see real numbers,” she said.

The number to keep in mind with streams gages is that each device costs about $15,000 a year to maintain.

The U.S. Geological Survey has been paying about half the cost of many of the gages. Other entities, such as the state of Vermont and the federally funded Lake Champlain Basin Program, have been picking up the other half.

Bill Howland is executive director of the Basin Program. His organization is reluctant to keep paying for the 10 gages now scheduled to be shutdown at the end of next month.

“For us to receive federal funds or international funds and turn them around to give them back to a federal agency is not something we can defend for very long,” he said.

Howland points out that the gages serve as an early warning system for floods in addition to providing basic data for pollution control.

“This is a serious blow, to lose these gages,” he said.

Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears said it’s unlikely the state will come up with all the money to run the equipment.

“Keep in mind this is a federal obligation and federal agencies depend on this information just as much as the state so I don’t imagine there’s going to be a circumstance in which the state steps in and just takes over these stream gages,” he said.

Automatic federal budget cuts known as the sequester have further reduced U.S. Geological Survey funds for the stream gages. A U.S.G.S official said he’s working this week with staff members of the Vermont congressional delegation to come up with funding options.