Flood Forecasting Network Remains Largely Intact, Despite Cuts

The USGS says sequestration has forced the shutdown of 31 flood forecasting stations to date -- not the 375 it first feared.

by Jim Malewitz, Stateline / August 8, 2013

Paralysis in Congress has eroded the nation’s ability to predict floods, but not to the extent some forecasters originally feared.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says sequestration, the across-the-board federal budget cuts that went into effect March 1, has forced the shutdown of 31 stations in its National Streamflow Information Program. The network of some 8,000 stream gauges provides real-time flood forecasts, flood plain mapping, and information used to divvy up water and construct dams and bridges.

The cash-strapped agency plans to soon shut off another 10 stations because of a lack of money. Another 45 are funded only through September.

Even so, the network has fared far better than officials feared this spring, when USGS predicted sequestration would claim 375 stations. According to Michael Norris, the network’s coordinator, a “tsunami of support” from other federal agencies, along with state and local governments, helped avoid deeper cuts.

“The situation wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” said Norris, adding that the help was a testament to the network’s value.

Experts say shutting off the stations, which each cost about $15,500 annually to maintain, could have devastating consequences as climate change increases the likelihood of extreme droughts and floods.

“Data was absolutely critical” last April when the Grand River’s surge forced some 1,700 people to flee their homes in Kent County, Mich., said Mark Walton, manager of the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Grand Rapids. “Without it, we would have basically been flying blind,” Walton said.

Even the smaller number of shut-offs is adding stress to a system that was already shrinking due to cutbacks at state and local governments, who partner with federal agencies to fund it. In addition to the stations closed by sequestration, nearly 600 gauges have gone idle in recent years, with Florida hit hardest.

Though the cuts forced the USGS to slash its program funding by 5 percent, other federal agencies that typically chip in — the Army Corps of Engineers, for example — kept their shares steady. The same held true for local partners, some of which boosted funding to keep stations running. In fact, some 28 stations that sequestration closed have since been resurrected.

The USGS also saved some threatened stations by putting off upgrades and maintenance at other stations, and canceled the installation of new gauges planned for flood forecasting.

Though sequestration hasn't been as painful as expected, Norris said the program is far from out of the woods, particularly since there’s no end in sight for sequestration.

“There’s still a great deal of uncertainty,” he said.

This article was originally published by Stateline. Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.