Iowa should be adding stream gauges, not shutting them down

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Thanks to an inadequate flow of state funding, 14 stream gauges, many added since the flood of 2008 to give us more information on rising rivers and creeks, have been shut down. These U.S. Geological Survey gauges are administered by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

We see it as a shortsighted decision. And according to a local lawmaker, the Legislature was left in the dark.

“There was no warning from the DNR or the Branstad administration,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “We clearly need more, not fewer stream gauges.”

That was the recommendation after floods in 1993, and again in the wake of 2008. More gauges are needed not only to sound the alarm when flooding threatens, but also to gather data on stream flows and other conditions that can inform flood preparation and mitigation.

It’s true these 14 gauges only represent 3.5 percent of the 400 gauges in operation. But as Cedar Rapids knows all too well, the loss of a single flood gauge can leave downstream residents dangerously less informed.

And what does it say about our priorities if the state can’t find the dollars to not only maintain but gradually expand this critical network?

Gauges are funded as part of a $1.950 million appropriation for DNR flood plain management. Within that line item is a legislative directive that up to $400,000 “may be used” by the DNR to add or install stream gauges.

But DNR spokesman Kevin Baskins says the department has been forced to shift those state dollars into other priorities. Last year, a flood plain management staff of nine evaluated more than 1,100 flood plain projects and more than 1,000 calls for technical assistance on flood plain mapping tied to the National Flood Insurance Program. So the DNR not only has stopped adding gauges, it’s now forced to shut some down.

We understand budget constraints. Lawmakers and the governor have put departments in a tight spot. But this is an issue of public safety, arguably government’s most important job. It should be a higher priority.

And now that lawmakers know the score, they should make sure the next state budget addresses the stream gauge issue. At the very least, it should include money to return the 14 gauges to service. The cycle of complacency, flooding and back to complacency, must be broken.

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