Stream gauges fall by the wayside in state budget cuts

Stream gauges fall by the wayside in state budget cuts

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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By Michael Wright

Nearly a half-dozen U.S. Geological Survey streamflow gauges around Montana were shut off two months ago and they’ll stay off under the proposed budget cuts from Montana’s governor.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s package of $76.6 million in proposed cuts to state government agencies, part of the effort to deal with a large budget shortfall, includes about $2.9 million from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. More than half of that — about $1.8 million — will come from DNRC’s water resources division.

Part of the cut comes in the form of ending financial support for five U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges — two near Kalispell, one on the Blackfoot River near Helmville, one at Big Spring Creek near Lewistown and one at Pryor Creek near Huntley. USGS says all five were discontinued in September.

The decision to stop paying for those gauges comes at a time when the money available for them seems to be dwindling. Five gauges funded by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks were shut off in July, and after FWP signaled that it may end funding for all of its gauges as part of $1 million in budget cuts to FWP’s fisheries division.

The gauges provide flow and temperature information to fishery managers, anglers and irrigators. Water use regulators look at the gauges throughout the summer to decide whether use needs to be cut.

John Kilpatrick, director of USGS’ Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center, said Montana has usually had about 225 stream gauges. Many streams have more than one, and Kilpatrick said it typically costs between $16,500 and $18,000 to run a gauge for a year.

But the USGS hasn’t been the one paying for the gauges. Kilpatrick said most of the gauges are funded with cost-share agreements between the federal government and state or local governments. Because of that, the funding has regularly been in question. The USGS even maintains a website for endangered gauges.

More than 10 have been discontinued in the last five months, and it seems more could be on the way.

“This is a pretty big hit that the two major state partners are taking,” Kilpatrick said.

The cut to DNRC’s water resources division is part of an agency-wide reduction of about $2.9 million over the next two years. About $1.8 million of that is coming from water resources, and in addition to the stream gauge cuts, the division won’t be able to replace equipment and will have less money for field work. Some positions within the agency are also going unfilled.

DNRC director John Tubbs said they went through the 43 gauges the agency funds and tried to decide which ones were most important. The ones they’ve decided to cut were deemed less important than the rest, but he’s not exactly pleased with the cut.

“That’s a tough pill for me,” he said.

He added that he’s told his staff to look for other entities that might fund the gauges — like a local government or a watershed group.

FWP is thinking the same way about its gauges. With the budget cuts to its fisheries division, FWP decided to not allocate money for re-upping their commitments to 14 gauges after the end of the fiscal year — June 30, 2018.

FWP pays for streamflow measurements only at some gauges and temperature only at others. The list includes gauges on the Big Hole, the Beaverhead, the Jefferson and Willow Creek near Harrison. The agency also pays for temperature measurements on the Gallatin and the Madison, and all are on the chopping block if they can’t find a funding source before next July.

They’ve had success with that in the past. Three gauges FWP quit funding in July were ultimately rescued by other funders, and they hope they’re successful again.

“Our hope is that we can figure out a solution so that they aren’t discontinued,” said Greg Lemon, a spokesman for FWP.