USGS stream gauges slowly return to service after nationwide failure

One of the affected stream gauges was on the Sun River near Augusta. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

The U.S. Geological Survey recently lost contact with about 14 percent of its stream gauges nationwide due to a faulty satellite telemetry system. All of the gauges were back online by the end of last week, but it wasn’t good timing for a system suffering from federal budget cuts.

The problem started on Oct. 20, when the USGS discovered a problem with the telemetry system that records and transmits stream-gauge data. The agency manages about 8,300 gauges on U.S. rivers and streams that transmit data to computers that then make the data available to the public.

People can normally access real-time flow and temperature data on the USGS website. The information can be critical for predicting floods and for farmers and ranchers who share irrigation water.

But on Oct. 20, that information dried up for gauges in 43 states, including 18 in Montana. Some of the affected gauges were on the Middle Fork Rock Creek near Philipsburg, the Sun River near Augusta, the Missouri River below Fort Peck and the Smith River above Fort Logan.

Each gauge keeps a record of its data, so nothing was lost. Once they were brought back online, the gauges could transmit all data collected during the outage.

Fortunately, in Montana, if stream gauges are going to have problems, late autumn is not a bad time. Flows are at some of their lowest levels, so few people are floating the rivers and the irrigation season is over.

But the USGS jumped on the problem, prioritizing those gauges in areas of the nation expected to receive significant rainfall, such as around Houston, Texas, where Hurrican Willa was expected to land.

Federal employees worked overtime, according to agency releases, but a week later, 10 percent of the gauges (or about 1,000) remained offline. An Oct. 29 release said the USGS was “working hand-in-hand with the manufacturer to find a solution to the transmitter issue.” 

The USGS shares its data with other federal, state and tribal agencies, so they were also aware of the problem. The National Weather Service put out an alert as to which gauges were down and if data was available from gauges managed by other agencies.

By the end of the second week, all but 3 percent of the gauges were back online and federal employees worked throughout the weekend. Finally on Nov. 8, the USGS announced that all its gauges were finally up and running. However, about 180 gauges belonging to other agencies – mainly in Minnesota and along the Texas border – were still affected.

USGS technicians turned their efforts toward restoring other equipment that experienced the telemetry issues, including about 85 rapid deployment gauges that are used periodically for emergency response.

All this comes after the USGS has announced that it must shut down various stream gauges because of a lack of money. About 170 are on the chopping block, including 25 in Montana.

Between 2010 and 2013, the USGS saw its budget reduced by 14 percent. President Donald Trump has twice sought to cut the USGS budget – and those of other science-oriented agencies – by double-digit percentages. In 2017, the stream gauge program received no money.

With recent wildfires and other climate disasters, the USGS has been funneling the money it has more toward natural-hazard science and mineral research and away from water-related research.

Fortunately, in July, the House Appropriations Committee proposed giving the USGS $13 million to maintain and improve the stream gauge network. But with the nation racking up a $779 billion deficit due to tax cuts in FY 2018, it remains to be seen whether such increases will be in the agency’s next budget.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.