Stimulus funding yields safer river monitoring as well as jobs

YELLOW SPRINGS, OH, Dec. 21, 2009 -- In addition to increasing jobs for U.S. industry, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) is helping the nation's river monitors gather better data and operate more safely in the field...

YELLOW SPRINGS, OH, Dec. 21, 2009 -- In addition to increasing jobs for U.S. industry, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) is helping the nation's river monitors gather better data and operate more safely in the field -- which in turn is yielding faster, more reliable flood warnings.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) received $14.6 million under ARRA -- also called the Stimulus Package -- to upgrade its nationwide streamgage monitoring network. The network includes 7,500 stations that monitor the amount of water flowing through creeks, streams and rivers, providing data that helps scientists understand stream dynamics, sportsmen track river conditions, and National Weather Service forecasters predict floods.

The upgrades include the purchase of sophisticated monitoring equipment and high data rate (HDR) satellite transmitters that increase reporting from each streamgage station to hourly transmissions rather than once every four hours. Before ARRA was passed by Congress, USGS was roughly halfway through a scheduled system-wide upgrade to HDR. The stimulus funds will allow the agency to complete the system-wide improvements well before the original 2013 deadline.

Though USGS hydrologists specialize in long-term monitoring of streams and rivers, the move to HDR radios opens new doors for long-term researchers at USGS and weather forecasters at the National Weather Service, notes Jim Morris, Center Director of the USGS Water Science Center in Columbus, Ohio.

"HDR transmitters will allow us to get our data out to the public and emergency managers in a much more rapid manner," Morris says. "It allows us to do more work, more efficiently. We'll collect much more data, and much better data."

Better Forecasts
That data is of vital interest to National Weather Service forecasters, who rely on USGS information when assessing river conditions and weather, predicting whether floods or flash floods could be a threat to people and property downstream.

"When USGS increased their data rates, it was like a gift to us," says Brian McInerney, Senior Hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, Utah. "Our ability and our confidence to warn for these events are very high. We can issue a flash-flood warning and know whether to route the warning downstream."

McInerney points to a pair of recent flash floods that may well have been more devastating or eluded the Weather Service's attention had it not been for the hourly reports from USGS HDR streamgages.

Along the Dirty Devil River in Utah, a 2006 thunderstorm system moved in under the National Weather Service's radar, he notes -- only USGS's streamgage system warned of the floods that resulted from the storms. The following year, USGS HDR data tracking a flash flood along the North Fork of the Virgin River allowed the National Weather Service to issue a flash flood warning and notify the National Park Service to evacuate visitors from the area that was soon inundated.

"There's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to keep people safe," says McInerney.

Safety Improvements
The upgrade funds are also helping keep USGS hydrologists safer on the job. Replacing older technology with new hydroacoustic systems that use sound waves to measure how much water is flowing in a stream -- and how fast it's moving -- is keeping monitors out of harm's way.

"Our people will be spending less time in dangerous situations," says Cory Angeroth, Data Program Chief for USGS's Water Science Center in Salt Lake City. "Instead of being in little cars on cableways suspended over rivers, we can use boats with hydroacoustic equipment, or we can use unmanned cableways, not even putting people out over the water. And where it used to take an hour to an hour and a half to take a measurement, now we're doing it in 15 minutes."

At the Columbus, Ohio Water Science Center, Data Program Chief Jim Mangus sees a similar opportunity to replace practices that can cause traffic tie-ups in more populous areas. "We don't have to put a big crane out there, affecting traffic," he notes, adding that his two-man teams can make their measurements three to four times faster with hydroacoustic equipment. "We can get on and off the bridge, not taking a lot of space, and it's a lot safer."

Saving U.S. Jobs
YSI Inc. of Yellow Springs, Ohio, estimates that USGS orders funded by ARRA have allowed the company to create or retain 19 employees, according to Executive Vice President Gayle Rominger. YSI designs and builds many of the devices used in the streamgage upgrade, from the hydroacoustic profilers manufactured by its San Diego-based division, SonTek/YSI to the HDR transmitters made in Logan, Utah by subsidiary Design Analysis Associates (DAA).

The stimulus provided by the boost in orders is also helping fuel R&D programs that might have otherwise been crimped by the global economic downturn, notes DAA President Terrell Fletcher.

"ARRA has really benefited our business," Fletcher says. "The orders have kept us busy, and have also helped fund our development of a new HDR platform. When we tie that data transmission to the other technologies that YSI is providing in terms of measuring water chemistry and water quantity, ARRA funding allows us to help USGS tell the public what's available and whether it's safe."

More information about streamgage upgrades >


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