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September 25, 2023

Did you know Oregon is home to an internationally recognized streamflow monitoring station?  

Five USGS staff from the Data Section stand in front of USGS banner. Two staff in the center holding recognition plaques.
Oregon Water Science Center received the award plaques during the 2023 USGS National Data Training Conference in Phoenix Arizona. Pictured right to left: Marc Stewart, Deputy Director for Data, followed by expert hydrologic technicians; Carrie Boudreau, Amarys Acosta, Scott Deweese, and Tasha Albertson-Herberholz. 

In May of 2023 the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recognized the Columbia River at The Dalles as a key centennial hydrologic observing station. This distinction is given to hydrologic, meteorological, and marine observing stations with at least 100 years of high-quality recorded data.  

Long-term data sets are critical to current and future environmental analysis. “To highlight this importance, WMO has a mechanism to recognize centennial observing stations. By so doing, the Organization promotes sustainable observational standards and best practices that facilitate the generation of high-quality time series data.” -World Meteorological Organization’s website. Visit the WMO website to learn more about the centennial observing station program. 


History of Columbia River at The Dalles streamflow station 

The Columbia River at The Dalles is an important monitoring location. The station provides a long-term record of streamflow draining a 237,000 square mile basin that crosses six western U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.  

The importance of streamflow data for the Columbia River near The Dalles was realized as early as 1858, when the Oregon Steam Navigation Co. leveled in the annual streamflow peak high-water mark at Lower Cascade Landing near present day Cascade Locks. This practice continued until 1877. These records, together with others collected at several sites nearby in succeeding years, furnish the basic data for the longest, continuous record of annual maximum streamflow for any stream in the United States (USGS, Water Supply Paper 1318, pg. 2). 

Over the course of the station history, ownership transferred several times. After the Oregon Steam Navigation Co., station ownership included U.S. Engineer Corps and U.S. Weather Bureau.  It is undetermined when USGS became the primary caretaker. The daily gage height and streamflow record began in 1878. 

Prior to The Dalles dam construction streamflow was calculated from the relationship between gage height and streamflow measurements. In March of 1957 construction of The Dalles Dam and the resulting fill of Lake Celilo, caused backwater.  The backwater meant that gage height no longer related to streamflow and a new technique was needed. The gage operated from 1955 to 1967 using another method - but it did not provide adequate results below 300,000 cubic feet per second. With developing technology by Westinghouse, an acoustic velocity meter (AVM) was installed in April 1969. This was the first application of an AVM on a large river channel.  With the AVM readings a mathematical relationship between water velocity, channel area, and streamflow measurements was defined and is still in use today.


100 ft tall tower on river bank. A technician in the cable car over the river. Another person watches 3/4 up the tower.
Built-in 1937 with funds from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the 100-foot-tall tower had a main cable that stretched 1,727 feet across the Columbia. Streamflow measurements started as soon as it was daylight to avoid the highest winds.
One of the most outstanding examples of a cableway ever built 

At USGS, hydrologic technicians often use cableways to safely measure streamflow. A technician pulls themselves and equipment in an aluminum cart across the main cable stretching over the river. The main cable is connected to two towers (one on each riverbank).  The Columbia River at the Dalles history boasts one of the most outstanding examples of a cableway ever built. Built in 1937 with funds from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the 100-foot-tall steel tower had a main cable that stretched 1,727 feet across the Columbia. 

The cableway was 20 miles upstream from The Dalles and 9 miles upstream from the old water-level recorder just above Celilo Falls (now flooded). The cableway construction included two electric-generator plants, air-conditioned powerhouse, an astronomical clock and time switch, switchboards for wiring the airway warning lights, and even a warehouse with living quarters for technicians visiting the station to make measurements. 

Measuring the flow suspended high above the largest river in the western U.S. with mechanical meters and hand powered reels would have been a thrilling and very physical experience. In 1948, USGS hydrologic technicians measured a flow of one million cubic feet per second from this cableway. That is enough water to fill roughly 11 Olympic size swimming pools per second! This cableway was accidentally destroyed in 1951 by a boom mounted on a passing river dredge.  

In modern times the Columbia River flow is measured from a boat using advanced acoustic instruments that map the channel area while tracking the speed of particles in the water across a section of river. USGS technicians continue to update and maintain the technology at this historic streamflow station during routine visits. 

The station is operated in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and funded by the U.S. Geological Survey Federal Priority Stream gage program. Numerous agencies rely on the streamflow station information for real-time data, operations, navigation, and forecasting.    

Check out these historic Columbia River field work photos (click for full image & details)


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