Up a Creek

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She had no idea she was in over her head. It started fun, a weekend float trip on a spring-fed Ozark stream. Her classmates didn’t have to persuade her. She was ready for the adventure with her friends. Mom worried. But Lindsay reassured her mother: “We’re going with friends who’ve floated before. They know what they’re doing.”

Lindsay packed sunscreen. Bug spray. Water shoes. But mom still worried. “It’s gonna rain this weekend.”

“Oh, mom, it’s the river. We’re gonna get wet anyway.”

Lindsay had no clue that even before the group left Columbia for the river, they were missing one key ingredient. The tool wasn’t something they could buy at the Jiffymart with their beer and snacks.

It’s a gage—one of 49 gages that measure our rivers in key spots. These gages, operated by the United States Geological Service (USGS), have saved countless lives by reporting water volume and river levels to your smart phone. Smart floaters upload the app to read these gages. Combined with weather forecasts, the water gages can help plan a safer experience on the river, and help avoid high-water tragedy and low-water trudgery.

But the gages are about to disappear.

Current funding for these 49 USGS gages in Missouri will end June 30, 2017. Unless other funding sources are identified, the data from these gages will no longer be available. This information shutdown affects popular rivers including the Current, the Jacks Fork, Eleven Point, Meramec, Huzzah, Little Piney and the Big and Little Niangua Rivers.

If you’re a Navy Seal, you probably feel secure without these reports. If you’re a mother sending your kid into the unknown, you may not be so sure.

Locally, there’s a gage on Hinkson Creek. Obviously the Hinkson gage must serve another purpose besides informing floaters. Indeed, many of these 49 stream gages help monitor and manage irrigation or help time wastewater discharges or reservoir releases. Some of the gages provide data to help monitor drinking water. Others help manage habitat. Gages have been used to help design bridges and levees and dams, and even monitor the flow from power plants.

But budget cuts loom and the gages are on the chopping block. Figures from the USGS indicate that one gage costs about $15,000 to operate for a year. If a gage is removed a re-install would add about $15,000 to the cost.

Writer, geologist and hydrology expert Jo Schaper compares “rivers without gaging stations to roads without traffic signals. You could still use the roads, but the risk would be much greater.”

Former Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) Environmental Specialist Sharon Clifford brings up another issue. As MDNR’s first coordinator to monitor our streams’ Total Daily Maximum Loads (TDML), Clifford recalls that “40 states were sued over this issue. It’s about fixing waterways that don’t meet standards after all permits are issued and it’s part of the Clean Water Act. To calculate a TMDL, you must have good flow information to plug into the model. Without it, it isn’t possible to do it accurately. So what now? More lawsuits? Huge waste of tax payer dollars.”

It’s like driving a car without a gas gage.

Your mechanic has a phrase for it: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” Listen to your mechanic. Contact your state and federal representatives and tell them to keep the river gages.

Lindsay’s mother thanks you.

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