Federal sequestration has hit again, this time in an unexpected area, shutting down the flow of data from water-level gauges at Congaree National Park.
At least for now, that leaves paddlers, overnight campers and long-term researchers high and dry — or maybe flooded without advance notice.
The U.S. Geological Survey river gauges are much more complicated than a beaker-like rain gauge. They have specialized mechanisms that measure the volume of water flow and the height of rivers and streams, and they transmit that information real-time to the USGS using satellite telemetry. The versions used on the Congaree River and on Cedar Creek at the national park cost about $7,000 a year to operate, according to John Shelton, associate director of the USGS in Columbia.
The geological survey, a federal agency, maintains the gauges and the information they provide. But the operational costs for most of the gauges are paid for by local interests such as power companies, utilities and state natural resources or transportation agencies.
The National Park Service paid for the two gauges at Congaree National Park until recently ending the arrangement because of sequestration-related cuts, Shelton said.
“I’ve been beating the bushes looking for somebody to replace them,” Shelton said. “Those gauges have been around for about 20 years, and they’re a huge asset.”
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler agreed that the gauges are extremely important. People paddling on the river need to know before they leave if there will be any sandbars where they can camp.
People with experience working or playing in the park can look at the river levels on the USGS web site and know whether it’s possible to paddle a canoe on Cedar Creek and how long it will take between launch and takeout. Off-trail hikers will know what sections are flooded, and have an indication when new sections will be flooded based on rising levels.
John Grego, president of Friends of the Congaree Swamp, wrote to congressional leaders to ask for the funding to be restored. He stressed the public safety angle.
What if a Boy Scout group camping in the park wakes up to find several feet of water between them and the visitors center, Grego asked.
The constant flow of information from the gauges also is extremely important for researchers and park planning, Grego said. They need to have an understanding of the day-to-day hydrology of the river and the swamp-like flood plain.
The friends group also has reached out to local companies to take over paying for the gauge operations. They have a $1,000 commitment and two other companies who have haven’t shut the door on the idea. Also, the friends group itself might be willing to participate in a stopgap funding situation, Grego said.
Just a few months ago, the National Weather Service shifted the statistics for its Congaree River flood watches and warnings from a gauge on the west side of the river in Sandy Run to the gauge slightly downstream and on the east side of the river in the national park. At the time, weather service officials said they switched because the park gauge had more relevance to more people.