WINCHESTER — The National Weather Service relies on the Winchester stream gauge to determine the North Umpqua River’s water level so it can determine whether to issue a flood watch or flood warning.
Water managers at various organizations depend on it for a historical record as well as a snapshot of what the river’s doing at any given time.
Anglers use it to estimate what the fish will do.
Without that gauge, government officials will have no way of determining the North Umpqua water levels in the Roseburg area. The nearest gauge upstream is in Glide and the nearest gauge downstream is in Elkton.
But the Douglas County government can no longer afford the $7,000 it has contributed annually to the gauge’s operation, and that’s a substantial chunk of the gauge’s $20,000 annual operating cost.
Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice said with the county’s ongoing budget woes, it just can’t keep spending the money.
Boice said there are some stream gauges the county is mandated to maintain, like those related to the Galesville Dam, for example. But the Winchester stream gauge isn’t one of them.
“This particular funding falls into the same category as us having to no longer pay for and provide library services, us no longer being able to provide free dump services, us no longer being able to provide free parks to go to. It’s all really the same issue, and the fact of the matter is that the county is in a declining revenue situation and it’s becoming dire as the years progress,” he said.
The gauge has been in operation for the past 80 years. But without the county’s contribution, the U.S. Geological Survey, which pays for most of the Winchester gauge’s operation, said it will discontinue operating the gauge Nov. 30 unless additional funding becomes available.
Hydrologists from the USGS, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Weather Service and the county, along with representatives from the Partnership for the Umpqua Rivers met at the Umpqua National Forest administrative offices in Roseburg last week to voice their concerns.
Mikeal Jones, retired Forest Service hydrologist, said the organizations appreciated that the county had stepped up to the plate to contribute funding for many years.
Marc Stewart, hydrologist with the USGS Oregon Water Science Center, said USGS has about 8,000 gauges across the country and enough money to fund about one third of them.
It takes local matching money to make the program work, he said.
The other hydrologists said the federal agencies they work for don’t have money to spare either. But they and county officials are hopeful that another organization will come forward with additional funds.
Stewart said the USGS puts a lot of effort into collecting the data and ensuring it meets national standards. It takes staff time to collect flow measurements, calibrate the gauge six to eight times a year, make visits to service the gauge and maintain the information as part of a national database.
Jones recalled past floods in 1954, 1964 and 1996 and said it’s important to have the data available so people can prepare themselves to minimize the damage.
“You forget the rivers exist until they treat you poorly,” agreed Spencer Higginson, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Medford.
Higginson said this is one of the main flood forecasting gauges in the Roseburg area.
“Certain gauges are considered official forecast points, so that’s where we issue flood warnings and flood watches for specific stretches of the river, and this is one of them,” he said.
Kevin Keller, interim director for the nonprofit Partnership for the Umpqua Rivers, said in addition to flood watches and warnings, all of the information collected by the gauge is useful for fishermen and fishing guides because they indicate when the fish will be moving.
The Partnership for the Umpqua Rivers has set up a link on its webpage, www.umpquarivers.org, in hopes of collecting donations to fund the gauge in the short term. Ultimately, they’re hoping someone steps up to provide a more permanent solution.
The Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians has stepped up to fund a temperature gauge onsite, so it will continue to function even if the water level gauge is shut down. The temperature gauge went in following the efforts of the Respect for Water Safety Committee, which hopes to prevent the drownings that can happen when swimmers don’t realize the water in the river is cold enough to be dangerous.