Federal cuts end collection of flood monitoring data

East Lyme - The stream gauge at Latimer Brook, which provided valuable data about flooding risk and the health of the Niantic River watershed, is one of the latest victims of the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which operates the Latimer Brook gauge, this winter removed it and five others elsewhere in the state due to sequestration, saving about $15,000 per year per gauge, said Jon Morrison, supervising hydrologist at the USGS offices in East Hartford.

Nationwide, about 375 gauges have been eliminated due to sequestration. In Connecticut, about 75 USGS gauges are still operating on rivers and streams, but more may have to be shut down next year, Morrison said.

The gauges automatically measure river flows, water temperature and other real-time, Internet-accessible data valuable to emergency preparedness managers for assessing flood and drought risk, to fisherman and paddlers for determing river conditions, to engineers designing bridges and culverts, to environmental planners analyzing issues involving polluted runoff, and to water companies assessing water supply, among others.

"It was a great tool," said Richard Morris, emergency management director for East Lyme, adding that the Latimer gauge provided important information during the March 2010 floods. During the floods, "We had that gauge up on our computer screen the whole time," he said.

Without the gauge, Morris said, he must visually inspect the brook, which flows into the Niantic River, to assess flood risk.

Judith Rondeau, natural resource specialist and Niantic River Watershed Coordinator, said the data from Latimer Brook was used to understand how much nitrate was entering the Niantic River watershed.

Since the gauge was removed, John Jasper, a member of the watershed committee, has been using modeling to calculate nutrient loading, she said.

But Jasper, in an email, said the gauge information is the most accurate way to understand water pollution problems in the river.

Without it, he said, "we will never know the fluxes of nitrate. And nitrate ... is driving eutrophication in the Niantic River estuary."

Rondeau said the town applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funding for the gauge, but was denied.

The Latimer Brook gauge, near routes 1 and 95 in Flanders Four Corners, had been operating since 2008 as a partnership between the USGS and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which did not renew its funding, Morrison said.

"The main cost of the stream gauges is in the salary costs to operate them," he said, adding that USGS staff must visit each one periodically to maintain the gauges and analyze the data they collect. As part of a $75,000, four-year grant from DEEP, the USGS also sampled and tested Latimer Brook for nutrient load.

The DEEP grant also paid for gauges on Oil Mill Brook and Stony Brook, also in the Niantic River watershed, which were eliminated in 2012, leaving no equipment. The watershed extends into Waterford, East Lyme, Montville and Salem.

Dennis Schain, DEEP spokesman, said the grant funds came from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to DEEP and were not renewed. The four-year grant has expired.

"These three gauges were never intended to be permanent, nor were they ever funded as a line item in the DEEP budget - it was grant money for (a) fixed period of time," Schain said.

j.benson@theday.com

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