Federal budget cuts led to the removal of a river gauge that measures water levels on the Sebasticook River, information that the National Weather Service says could have been useful in forecasting conditions before severe flooding tore apart sections of downtown Dexter on Wednesday.
The river gauges, which track data such as temperature, stream flow and pollution levels, are critical in forecasting location-specific flood warnings, according to hydrologist Tom Hawley, of the weather service in Gray.
Hawley said the absence of a gauge on the Sebasticook hindered the weather service’s ability to predict the flooding in Dexter.
“It’s like forecasting the temperature without having a thermometer,” Hawley said Thursday. “Without the gauge there, the data is not completely reliable.”
Dexter Town Manager Shelley Watson said water levels were still high and the town was assessing damages Thursday. “It’s still too high to do much of anything,” she said, adding that the town received no official flood warnings earlier in the week.
When an inch of rain and an inch of snow combined with run-off water and snowmelt across the state Tuesday night, flooding swept across the state and generated dozens of flood warnings, some of which were still in effect Thursday. No injuries were reported in connection with the flooding of the Sebasticook River East Branch in Dexter, although the flooding resulted in road and business closures and washed out a section of road beneath the Dexter Historical Society Grist Mill Museum.
Weather service officials say they weren’t able to provide the most accurate or quickest flood warnings for the Dexter area. That’s because they didn’t have data from the gauge, which had been positioned downstream in the Sebasticook River in Pittsfield but was discontinued in January following controversial federal budget cuts known as sequestration.
Across the country, stream flow data that is used for many purposes besides forecasting has been affected by federal budget cuts. Within the last year, 581 gauges across the country have been discontinued, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which oversees the gauges’ operation. That cutback represents only a small percent of the gauges operated across the country, but the importance of each gauge is critical, according to Gregory Stewart, chief data analyst for the Maine office of the geological survey.
“It was one critical gauge; it wasn’t just fluff or extra,” Stewart said. “Maine only has 70 stream flow gauges, which is few compared to a state like Pennsylvania, which has about 200 for roughly the same area.”
Allen Fuller, a Benton resident who lives along the river, said he has been concerned about the gauge removal since last year and he’s frustrated that no additional funding has come through to keep it in place.
“Flooding is only one piece of it,” Fuller said. “Not having information on stream height is potentially a serious problem, but it seems like no one wants to come up with the money to fund it.”
The cost of operating a gauge for one year is $13,200 and is usually shared by the federal government and state or other entities such as municipalities, dam operators or other agencies. In Maine, the federal government funds only 12 of the state’s 70 gauges completely. When the Pittsfield gauge was removed, the federal government was offering to pay 40 percent of the cost, but every attempt to get the matching funds fell through.
Since the brunt of federal sequestration cuts went into effect last year, President Barack Obama has proposed budget increases for the U.S. Geological Survey, including a $1.3 million increase for the National Streamflow Information Program, which installs and manages gauges around the country.
Kevin Kelley, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Thursday that Collins recently sent a letter to leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee urging that adequate funding be provided for the program this year.
In addition to forecasting floods, the river and stream gauges are used to manage waste water treatment, license hydroelectric dams and monitor migration of critical fish populations such as the alewife on the Sebasticook.
On Thursday, the weather service said it would be ending forecast services for the Sebasticook River because stream flow observations gathered with the gauge are critical to river forecasts; and without the gauge in place, the information is impossible to gather. During this week’s storm, water level estimates were gathered using computer models, but the results were vague.
The river was estimated to be at a water level of 10.3 feet on Wednesday, which is above the flood level of 9 feet, and was expected to continue to rise through Thursday, according to the weather service. Hawley said the weather service had no data on the water levels or whether the river had crested Thursday afternoon.
In the future, the weather service still will issue aerial, or flash flood warnings, based on the expected amount of rain that would cause rivers to go above their banks; but those warnings are generally issued for much larger areas, such as a county or several counties at a time.
That means communities along the Sebasticook River may not get as accurate or quick warnings of floods and that other entities along the river will have more trouble getting critical data.
“It’s certainly important for assessing how well fish passage was happening and assessing whether regulatory standards were being met along the dams,” said Jennifer Irving, executive director of the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust, a conservation group whose primary interest is in the Sebasticook watershed. The river, which originates just north of Dexter, is a tributary of the larger Kennebec River and flows 73 miles to Winslow, where the two connect.
It is currently the site of a major fish restoration program focusing on bringing alewife populations upstream to spawn. The project has been successful so far in boosting populations from about 45,000 in 2006 to 2.3 million in 2013, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Data from the gauge is used to determine how well fish passage is working and determine whether dams in Benton and Burnham are in compliance with laws and regulations. Knowing how much water is coming through the dam allows operators to adjust operations so that some water can be used for fish passage and some for energy production.
The data is also important for recreational use of the river, as many people use the data to determine conditions and when it is safe to be on the water.
“Losing that source of data just leaves a big hole in terms of whether we know how things are working,” Irving said.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 firstname.lastname@example.org