Streamgages: The Silent Superhero

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Whether you drink water from your tap, use electricity or canoe down your local river, chances are you benefit from USGS streamgage information. So what is a streamgage and what does it do for you? This CoreCast episode gives you the inside scoop on your silent superhero.

Transcript and captions available soon.


Episode Number: 106

Date Taken:

Location Taken: US


Jennifer LaVista: Whether you drink water from your tap, use electricity, or canoe down your local river, chances are you benefit from US Geological Survey's streamgages. So, what is a streamgage and what does it do for you? I met with the experts to find out more. Matthew Larson: A streamgage is a very simple mechanical device that measures how much water is flowing in a river. Thomas Graziano: The streamgage data are utilized in real time by the National Weather Service to issue timely and accurate river forecasts and warnings necessary to assure and promote public safety nationwide. Joseph Hoffman: We turn on our taps and we don't recognize where that water comes from. Few people realize who their water supplier is, much less that they have relied upon a streamgage to make sure that that water gets to the customer. Sue Lowry: They're used to turning on their tap and having water come out without really understanding just how intricate and involved it is to make sure that that tap doesn't ever run dry for them. Joseph Hoffman: The Potomac River in the background is shared by Maryland along with Virginia and West Virginia and the District of Columbia. So, they periodically have disputes that come about. And having gage information helps to resolve some of those discussions. In the western states, where it's sometimes much drier than it is in the East, they utilize gages to divide that water up amongst the states. Sue Lowry: The USGS is critical because they're seen as an impartial third party. Of course, neither states can trust the other one to necessarily collect data that wouldn't in some way help their position. Joseph Hoffman: The drinking water providers need to know how much flow there is to base their treatment. They need to know what the loading is, how much is coming in, what kind of pollutants are there that they have to address. Sue Lowry: Water needs for fisheries and ecological purposes are also critical. The least terns and the piping plover, those are both endangered species that are throughout our area. They need bare sandbars for their nesting. And so, again, the agencies like the Corps of Engineers needs streamflow information so that those nesting habitats will be available and hopefully these birds then will be able to recover. Thomas Graziano: Streamflow information is critical in situations of drought or low flow, as well as in situations of high flow or flooding. With climate change, with increasing population resulting in increasing stresses on our limited water supply in this country, water information is becoming all the more important to what we do and to decision makers nationwide. Joseph Hoffman: Streamgage information is utilized by engineering firms, consultants, by the federal governments, the state governments, as they design projects such as this bridge that we have in the background. The river has gotten up to just over 41 feet back in 1936 with a flood they had. So, when this bridge was built, they have to make sure that that bridge is high enough. Gretchen Ellsworth: Rowers, like any paddle sports, anybody who's using the river, we need to know what the river is doing. There are very serious consequences we're taking when rowing boats out into water that's too rough or too fast. Joseph Hoffman: Into the next decade, I see the continuing need for streamgages. I don't think we can cut back on them. In fact, we'd probably want to see more of them. We've got big infrastructure problems in the US. Bridges, highways, all need to be replaced or repaired. And we've got to utilize gage information in order to effectively design those replacements or those repairs. Sue Lowry: I think there's a real misconception out there that once you've had a gage in place for maybe 10 or 15 years that you have all the information that you need, when in fact, we really need these gages to be in place for, in some cases, 100 years because there's so much seasonal variability in how water can come off. We might have a really dry June. We might have a wet July. two years are exactly the same. So, unless you have the full range of precipitation covered by these gages, you don't have the confidence that you really know and can project what kind of water may be coming. Matthew Larson: Water is probably the most important commodity for the nation. It's one that's underappreciated but it's essential for life, as we know. None of us can get by within a day or two without drinking it. And so, knowing how much water is available in our rivers our streams is critical for the national health. And using our streamgages, we can monitor that flow in rivers and know how much water is available. It's critically important as we go into the future and and uncertain climate, as climate change affects the availability of water in rivers and streams around the country. Jennifer LaVista: To learn more about the USGS streamgaging program, visit That stands for the National Streamflow Information Program. CoreCast is a product of the US Geological Survey Department of the Interior. I am Jennifer LaVista.