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New Flood Gauges For New York Rivers

WAMC Photo by Dave Lucas

Areas along the Hudson, Mohawk and Oswego rivers will soon have new tools to warn of possible floods.  U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has set aside nearly $1.5 million for the installation of stream gauges in 23 counties.

A trio of storms named Irene, Lee and Sandy, changed the way New York feels about climate change.

"We're seeing things that we've never seen. We see floods where homes that have been dry for a hundred years get hit with floods and get totally destroyed,"  Governor Andrew Cuomo declared  "extreme weather is the new normal"  back in 2012.  Stream gauges number among the first lines of scientific defense.   The gauges are used to monitor and measure rainfall and water levels to help emergency management officials respond to water disasters.

Senator Gillibrand says recent floods caused by the three storms show the need for the devices. She says the federal funds for the gauges are a "step in the right direction" for efforts to better prepare the state for future floods.

Shorna Allred is a social scientist and associate professor of natural resources in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell.    "Most municipal officials said that they have noticed an increase in the number and intensity of extreme weather events in their communities."

Senator Schumer has been pushing to have long-term funding for stream gauges as a first line of defense and preparedness tool since the summer of 2013, when he argued "not providing the $63 million to expand the flood gauge program would be pennywise and pound-foolish."  

USGS Hydrologist Gary Firda explains how the gauges operate:    "They record the stage or elevation of the river, that's how high or low the river is. What we really need to know is what the volume associated with those stages are, and so what we have to do is periodically come out here every 6 to 8 weeks and we make discharge measurements, where we physically measure what the flow or the volume of the river is."

Data obtained by the devices is passed along via satellite to other agencies, including the National Weather Service, which uses the numbers to help forecast rain and flood probabilities.  The annual cost per gauge is approximately $15,000.   "It's very high-tech equipment, satellite transmitters, acoustic doppler profilers, training individuals to operate and troubleshoot that equipment, coming out every 6 weeks and making a flow measurement, that usually takes two people an hour or two hours to physically measure the flow."

With the new funding, the Canal Flood Warning System in New York is combining forecasting, early monitoring systems, and precise flood warnings to get first responders and local communities the real-time data they need in the risk or event of flooding.

The $1.5 million obligation is the final installment of federal funding for the project, meaning that now 100 percent of the total cost of installing these stream gauges will be covered by FEMA.

Previously only 75 percent of the $5.9 million project was being offset by federal funds.

The risk being mitigated is flooding within three New York river basins: the Mohawk, Oswego, and Upper Hudson.    Several counties are included in these basins, among them Albany, Greene, Herkimer, Montgomery, Oneida, Saratoga, Schenectady and Schoharie.

Credit USGS http://nd.water.usgs.gov/gage/how.html
This photo composite represents a typical USGS stream gauge system.

The warning system currently provides emergency responders, local officials and residents detailed information that allows more effective planning, response and notification, thereby reducing the potential effects on the public through evacuation or preparation. The flood warning system also provides local emergency managers with accurate information to safely manage decision making in flood prone areas including evacuations and road closures. This data can be integrated with National Weather Service precipitation forecasts to provide near real-time stream flow and water elevation forecasts. More importantly, the flood warning system also includes a system optimization component and flood mitigation analyses to optimize the timing of reservoir releases and water control structure operations to minimize flood damage.

The funds were awarded under Section 404 of the Stafford Act, which provides for Hazard Mitigation discretionary funding for disaster relief and emergency assistance. This specific pot of funding comes out of the Section 404 funds associated with Tropical Storm Irene. The purpose of Section 404 mitigation funds is to promote measures that reduce future loss to life and property, protect federal investment in public infrastructure and ultimately, to help build disaster resistant communities.

[Read the full press release]

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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