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December 03, 2016
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Funding is critical for rain and stream gauges

Ron Urban

On March 1, 16 rain gauges and 18 stream gauges used to measure water flows in rivers and streams throughout New York’s Marcellus Shale region will be turned off.

The U.S. Geological Survey can’t afford to operate the gauges anymore. Long depended upon as reliable sources of information, the gauges are useful in predicting floods and tracking river flows over time. Stream flow gauges also alert officials to when a stream’s water level becomes too low to support aquatic life. Losing these data collectors couldn’t come at a worse time for New York communities, many of which are still reeling from the effects of recent floods. And, as the state closes in on developing regulations for Marcellus Shale development, losing these key sources of information could prove detrimental to dozens of streams and rivers in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes areas, in the exact places where gas drilling would most likely occur according to a statement made by Governor Cuomo’s administration last summer.

New Yorkers deserve to have more information about what’s happening in their local waterways, not less. All that is needed to continue operating these gauges is $215,000. Given the kind of extreme weather the state has experienced in recent years, it’s imperative that water levels in local streams and rivers be monitored closely, for state and local officials and residents, and for the trout and other species that rely upon adequate and consistent stream flows.

In the state’s draft Marcellus Shale regulations and also in its rules governing water withdrawals, New York points to these gauges as a critical part of its plan to manage and oversee potential impacts of drilling-related water withdrawals on rivers and streams. Taking more than 30 gauges out of operation on rivers and streams in key counties in the Marcellus Shale region is shortsighted and could prove damaging to rivers, streams and aquatic life.

If and when Marcellus Shale development happens in New York, state regulators, residents and the gas and oil companies themselves will need detailed, real time information about what is happening in local waters. If too much water is taken out of a river or stream and used for gas drilling, these gauges would document the activity, setting off an alarm with state officials.

These gauges are located in the Susquehanna River Basin, in the Finger Lakes and the Southern Tier, where Marcellus drilling, if allowed in New York, is most likely to occur. If anything, more resources should be put into gathering information about the state’s natural resources at this critical juncture. New York just needs to be reminded of Pennsylvania’s experience with water withdrawals where fish kills were caused on at least two streams that were de-watered to feed the needs of a gas company.

Removing the gauges would turn river management into a guessing game, where residents and local communities would be left with very little information about what’s happening in their local waters.

New York should be proud of the steps it has taken to improve its water resources management in the past year. However, removing these gauges now—in the face of potential gas drilling and in light of recent floods—would be taking New York’s water management program a step backward. Federal and state decision makers must find some way to fund these valuable tools before turning their backs on the communities that rely on these gauges to protect local streams and rivers.

[Ron Urban is the chairman of NY Trout Unlimited and a resident of Port Ewen, NY.]