By J. Young
Deep in Southern West Virginia on the bank of the New River next to a nearly empty former coal town called Thurmond (population: 6), there is a river-level gauge. Nestled in the brush on a steep slope by the water’s edge, the gauge quietly measures the amount of water flowing past that point on the river every second. At predetermined times throughout the day, it faithfully and robotically transmits the data to an Internet server, where the information populates an algorithm on the USGS website (waterdata.usgs.gov). Various other websites then mine that data to display it to their constituents and, voila, the river level becomes public knowledge.
In every sense, that data makes hundreds of people a day safer than they would be without it. The entire New River whitewater rafting industry—as well as private boaters, fishermen and more—rely daily on the data transmitted from the lonely little gauge to know river conditions before they get there. But on Sunday, March 31, 2013, the gauge suddenly went silent. The ensuing outcry from those who ply the river, however, was deafening.
According to a notice dated March 5 on waterdata.usgs.gov, “The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) will discontinue operation of up to 375 streamgages nationwide due to budget cuts as a result of sequestration.” This is a little misleading, however, since the USGS hasn’t paid to operate the Thurmond gauge in more than seven years.
“Years ago, the USGS told us that the Thurmond gauge was surplus to their needs,” said Debbie Darden, assistant superintendent of the National Park Service’s New River Gorge National River. So, the NPS began to pick up the tab. Astonishingly, though, nobody knows for certain what costs so much—the price tag is currently more than $17,000 per year.
Let’s pause so you can absorb this new information. Remember the lonely little gauge tucked into a hillside next to the water? The USGS charges the NPS more than $17,000 per year to keep transmitting its data. That’s not the cost to actually operate the gauge—the gauge does that automatically. (In fact, the data it collected while it was “silent” is now readily available on the USGS’ Thurmond page.) That’s their fee to collect the data and post it online, and presumably for ongoing maintenance.
And the price tag was chained to an elevator. “$17,000 seems like a lot to us too,” said Darden, “and it was going up by $500 per year. It was actually $17,400 this year and next year it would be $17,900.” Once the sequester hit the NPS, “We felt like we were paying so much for this gauge, and we just couldn’t support it.”
Because the Thurmond gauge is so important to so many people, nobody really believed that the USGS would actually turn it off. So, despite the warning, the silent gauge took a lot of people by surprise. “I had people from Ohio, Maine, North Carolina—all over—calling me to see what the river was running,” said Bobby Bower, who heads West Virginia Professional River Outfitters or WVPRO, an industry association. He pointed out that the Thurmond gauge also has an economic impact. “People who don’t live here know what level they like to run it at. They check that gauge and if they like the info, it actually brings them into the area.”
The uproar among river guides, private boaters and fishermen was instantaneous. ”That morning, guides and river managers were coming up to me absolutely incensed,” said Dave Arnold, one of the founders of Class-VI River Runners and a senior manager at Adventures On the Gorge. “They wanted to know if I could do anything, so I immediately emailed Congressman Rahall’s office.”
Nick Rahall was instrumental in the New being designated a National River and in the formation of the Gauley River National Recreation Area. His work on behalf of the commercial rafting industry has been tireless. Exactly 24 hours later, Arnold received a response of only five words: “We are all over this.” Within days, he also received word that the USGS would begin transmitting Thurmond data again.
The story of 2013′s Gaugegate, does not end there, however, for the lonely gauge’s reprieve is temporary. The USGS has promised, one, to leave the gauge on until the end of September, two, that they would reduce the fee for operating it to $14,400/yr, and three, that they would match 1/3 of the total price, i.e., half what the whitewater community can collect on its own. The NPS agreed and added a third. In other words, if boaters and the commercial rafting community come up with $4,800/yr, the NPS will match it and so will the USGS to keep the gauge on and transmitting.
But the price tag is still high, and private boaters and many in the rafting industry are still asking, “Why does it cost so much?” Answers are, unfortunately, few and far between.
The end game of Gaugegate could turn out a number of different ways. Option 1 as far as the NPS is concerned is to pool resources and continue operating the Thurmond gauge. Other options, while intriguing, may not include automated data about whether the river is actively rising or falling, which is every bit as important as a snapshot of the current level.
Let’s hope the lonely little gauge at Thurmond stays busy for a long time to come. Next time you float by, give it a wave.