The Peculiar Way I Spent My Lunch Hours Recently

Life finds me in Lakewood, Colorado on business. And it is business because until now I have not had more than a few moments for leisure, and certainly nothing like the time needed to blog. I am here for annual testing by our users for changes to the U.S. Geological Survey’s system for managing water data. It is called NWIS, short for National Water Information System. The official workday is from 8-5, which does not seem too onerous. The social obligations in the evening, while fun, make it feel more like 12 or 14 hour workdays. I have not seen much of my hotel room since I arrived on Sunday.

I’ve had two working lunches in the three days that I’ve been here. Whereas most people might go to a restaurant and discuss work, I was taken to three gauging stations instead. What is a gauging station? In the water business it’s nothing more that a place that measures water. USGS operates thousands of these stations across the country, usually in cooperation with a state or a local authority that chips in with the funding. It costs in excess of $10K a year just to maintain a station. These stations do not come cheap. However their information is invaluable. You can monitor streams or wells in your own neighborhood by going to the site I manage, NWISWeb. You might as well check it out since your tax dollars are paying for it.

It wasn’t until Monday though that I actually got out in the field and came in close contact with a gauging station. (USGS calls the gaging station; I won’t argue the spelling but I do note that gauging is in my spellchecker and gaging is not.)

And here it is in all its glory: the latest flow statistics for a modest gauging station on Turkey Creek near Indian Hills, Colorado. Although there is no picture of the station on this page, it sits near the side of a road that ascends into the Rocky Mountains. When we were there the creek was spewing water at approximately ten cubic feet per second. Someone calculates this stream flow by calculating something called stage, which is the height of the creek over a marked level. Since creeks are not usually completely flat, hydrologists have to go out periodically and remeasure the stream. Some rocks or sediment may have shifted over the course of months, which affects the calculation such as discharge, which is the volume of water that flows over the stream at a particular point in one second. That’s why these stations cost money to maintain. Hydrological technicians have to come out during the year, check the equipment and verify the accuracy with some manual checks. This particular station also transmits the information to a satellite. We call these types of stations real time, although they are not real time. Near real time is more accurate. Depending on how often they are programmed to transmit their information, the information may appear on NWISWeb five or thirty minutes later. Still it’s faster and cheaper than keeping someone on site to measure this information and radio it in. This information, which seems so dry, is actually incredibly valuable. It can suggest the extent of an emerging flood. More sophisticated stations measure more complex things including water temperature and water quality. More prosaic uses tell Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer whether it’s a good day to go white water rafting.

Still this gauging station is not much to look at: an ugly box on top of a drainage pipe buried vertically in a stream. A solar panel high on a metal pole provides electricity for instruments inside the station to record the measurements. A battery backup inside the station ensures the readings continue through the night or during cloudy days. And the latest information can stream into your web browser over the Internet any time of the day or night, should you have the inclination or suffer from insomnia. There are over 8000 of these “real time” stations transmitting away, giving a picture of the current water conditions across the United States.

Today we saw a much different gauging station. Kip, one of my part time employees who lives out here in Denver, took another of my employees and myself to Sand Creek, near Commerce City in Denver. It’s in an industrial area of the city. A large sewage treatment plant and a chlorine storage facility nearby means that the area must be heavily secured. We needed our badges and a good word from Kip to get into the facility. Another guard had to open another gate so we could access the station itself. Actually there are two stations in close proximity. One gauge measures discharge of the wastewater, the other measures discharge of Sand Creek itself. The sum of the information gives the total picture of the flow of water on this creek. But according to Kip much of the water is drawn off up the creek for industrial or other uses. It’s a very rare day when all the water flows freely down this creek.

It’s a depressing site. Garbage collects at a gate that measures discharge. Lots of plastic bottles sit on top of the water. It’s just more detritus from Man’s insistence on modern living. We climb over weedy patches and a metal footbridge so we could get right above the monitoring equipment. Kip opens the station itself. We inspect the equipment that measures the stage, but also notice that it has water quality monitoring equipment. A hydrologist can actually phone the station and tell it start drawing water samples. This often happens after a large rain storm. While it may appear that these stations are untouched for weeks or months at a time, hydrologists monitor these stations frequently and often phone in instructions to the equipment.

On the way back to Lakewood to attend another meeting, Kip drives us by one more station a few miles from downtown Denver. This one is on Cherry Creek next to a skateboard park. It is actually operated by the City of Glendale, Colorado, which is nice enough to let us stream their data. Bicyclists pass by. So far the stations I have seen have been nothing to look at, but this one is designed to look nice with the park-like environment. If a gauging station can have class, this one does.

From such humble and voluminous scientific measurements much is learned. The knowledge is applied to help forecast droughts, learn if water quality is suffering or predict the impact of floods and hurricanes. It is part of a Herculean feat by thousands of hydrologists across the country, many of them USGS scientists. The “real time” data usually goes to a satellite, then back to earth, then back to other satellites. It is then received in a processed and usable form by our water science centers in each state. The data must be quality checked before they can become official records. The “real time” information is marked as provisional. Because occasionally equipment goes bad or measures incorrectly, until a hydrologist can quality check it we cannot bless it.

From the water science centers the processed data is sent over leased lines and collected where I work in Reston, Virginia. From there it is replicated to web servers in three places across the county. It serves the data that you may request any time of the day or night.

While I admire our system, the technology behind it, and hope to improve it, I am far more in awe of the hydrologists, technicians and engineers out in the field in all kinds of weather maintaining and monitoring this equipment. It is a complex ballet done by thousands across the country. Thanks to their professionalism not only can you check out your local water information from the convenience of your family computer, but you can rely on the accuracy of the information. It is money I in my bias naturally think is very well spent. It doesn’t take an abacus to realize that as our population expands our water information will grow more critical.

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