125 Years of Systematic Streamgaging
May 2, 2014
EMBUDO, N.M., -- Accurate, reliable and timely water data is as important today as it was 125 years ago when the first U.S. Geological Survey streamgage in the United States was established here in 1889.
As part of 2014's Earth Day events, the Albuquerque District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers joined the USGS for a celebration April 22 for the 125th anniversary of the Embudo streamgage which was constructed as a training site for hydrographers and hydrologists to support irrigation in the desert southwest. Suzette Kimball, Acting Director of the USGS, spoke about the importance of accurate, reliable and timely water data and how the Embudo streamgage has played a role in providing this data for so many years.
Mark Yuska, Albuquerque District's Operations Division chief, spoke about the importance of the USGS-Albuquerque District, Corps of Engineers partnership of more than 75 years, beginning with the signing of the Cooperative Streamgaging Agreement in 1940. One aspect of this partnership is that the District funds 24 streamgages in New Mexico and five in Colorado in connection with reservoir operations. Additionally the District helps fund gages associated with short term projects and needs, such as rain gages located around Cochiti Lake that provide advanced warning on potential high flows from the Los Conchas wildfire burn scar.
Yuska noted that while one of the Corps' primary missions, flood control, is critically dependent upon the streamgage network, the District is "very proud to be a key partner in conducting daily operations in dry/low-flow conditions equally reliant on stream-gages like Embudo."
Yuska expressed gratitude and commendations from the District's Commander for the strong partnership shared, and the wisdom, foresight, persistence, and expertise the USGS has demonstrated in this great service.
Other speakers included Scott Verhines, New Mexico State Engineer; Mike Hamman, Area Manager, Upper Colorado Basin, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; Shawn Bennett, National Weather Service; and representatives from the offices of New Mexico's congressional delegation.
The establishment of the gage at Embudo marked the beginning of systematic streamgaging in the United States. John Wesley Powell, the second director of the USGS, proposed inventorying all the streams and rivers in the West to evaluate the potential for irrigation, which would facilitate settlement. As part of this inventory, the flows of the region's rivers and streams needed to be measured.
While primitive streamgages existed in a few places in the Eastern U.S., the methods used were not feasible in the West and more suitable techniques had to be developed. Not just the site of the first USGS streamgage, Embudo was also the site of the first USGS training camp for hydrographers, established in December 1888. It was here that early USGS hydrographers worked out the fundamentals of the streamgaging methodology that is still used today. Hydrography deals with the measurement and description of the physical features of bodies of water and with the prediction of their change over time.
Getting an accurate reading of a stream's flow is not as simple as sticking a measuring rod into the river and seeing how high the water reaches. River and stream beds are not perfectly smooth and flat; sandbars, rocks, vegetation and depressions might be present and affect the water's velocity. Velocity is not uniform throughout a stream; it's generally slower on the bottom. Where is the water level measured - at the top or bottom of a wave? All these issues and more are taken into consideration in streamgage methodology.
The information from river and stream gages is a matter of public safety, environmental protection and wise economic development. The data is used to forecast floods, manage and allocate water resources and design engineering structures such as dams, irrigation structures and bridges.
Over the past 125 years the number of streamgages has grown so that today more than 247 million daily observations from 26,000 streamgages are available through the USGS National Water Information System.