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Update 2021/12/3
streammflow Monitors

The USGS Network of Streamflow Monitors: A 24/7 Flood Warning System

WTOH Interview with Thomas Harris, Chief, Hydrologic Networks USGS, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana Water Science Centre, Dec 2, 2021

WT: I have Thomas Harris on the phone; Mr. Harris is Chief of Hydrologic Network Services for United States Geological Survey, managing groundwater and surface water flow sensors for the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana Water Science Centre, thank you for doing this interview.

I understand your work at the Water Science Centre with USGS comes under the US Department of the Interior, can you tell us which entities/organizations are your main audience, for whom do you gather this water information, and for what purpose?

Harris: Our main cooperators are the Army Corps of Engineers, the US Environmental Protection Agency, we have a lot of state agencies, Ohio EPA, two large water conservancy districts. There are also a lot of local entities that make up our program, many counties and towns that fund a gage. For example, in Ohio, we have a town that has done flood inundation mapping, and this is tied to our streamflow data. You can basically take the gage height or a series of gage heights and work back for flooding, if it gets to a certain level, the town knows which areas will flood, and how they will flood.

I would say the public is a humungous user of our data. Out of our federal, state and local cooperators, when I look at hits on our website, it’s the public that hits the data the most, whether for fishing, canoeing, or general outdoor enthusiasts’ use.

WT: Can you give us a sense of the scale of your network, how many monitoring stations do you maintain in Ohio?

Harris: In Ohio, we maintain 320 river gages; out of these we have a lot of water quality stations – 67, these also give pH, conductance, turbidity, oxygen levels. We also maintain precipitation gages that are co-located with our river gages. Out of the 320 streamflow stations, 100 have precipitation gages. We are always discussing with National Weather Service on flooding concerns, we adjust the action stage, minor flood, moderate flood stage, major flood stage. We work closely with NWS to adjust these levels based on changing channel conditions.

WT: Observing changing banks and channel conditions requires boots on the ground, you have people on site as well?

Harris: We are out there every six or seven weeks, checking on our stations. We take flow measurements, we test the (sensor’s) rating curve, we make sure the sensor is working correctly, and based on our observations the NWS adjusts their action stage and flood stage indicators.

WT: Can you give us a sense of the investment, the cost to install, and cost to maintain a sensor, and how these are funded?

Harris: A typical USGS streamflow gage, there are two costs: for initial installation, 25 to 30 thousand. There are a lot of electronic components, power supply; the electronics is the big cost. The maintenance, for stage and discharge site monitoring, the maintenance cost is $14,500 per year. Some sites have minimal monitoring, it is $5,500 per year for stage monitoring only. 

WT: In your view, how important are these monitoring stations, what is the impact of having the sensors, or not having enough sensors on a river system?

Harris: Oh, these gages are very important! People really, really rely on them. Of course, you know floods always happen at night, it’s never at noon on Tuesday when your river floods. It’s at midnight or on Thanksgiving or Christmas. One town had their policeman watching the river without a gage, but they can’t tell at night what’s happening. Now this town has a flood stage monitor. It reports 24/7 on an hourly basis. You can sign up for a text alert, the station will send a text every hour if that river is approaching flood stage.

The main use of the information is for flood, but it is also for bridge construction, and the US Army Corps of Engineers uses our streamflow gage data to plan release from reservoirs.

WT: Climate question, are the floods coming more often now, is flooding more severe?

Harris: 1993 was a big one, we haven’t had anything that big since. Ohio had the 1913 flood, we haven’t seen anything of that magnitude since then, but we have more frequent rain events now, and more consistent floods.

WT: Can you tell us how your work impacts day to day management and administration of public drinking water systems and wastewater systems in Ohio towns, cities and counties?

Harris: For one example, the Northeast Ohio Sewer District is a cooperator, the USGS gages are in their master plan, they use our gage information when planning for the release of treated wastewater.

WT: Well, thank you for all of this, it’s very good information for our viewers.

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