The Need for Gaging Stations in Montana


In the watershed world, there are a few topics that are guaranteed to be discussed at every gathering: droughts and flooding, best local brewery, and stream gages*. At a recent meeting of the Musselshell Watershed Coalition, the group took a close look at gaging stations – how they work, who uses them and how, and who pays for them and how.

Support for Montana’s stream gage network comes from a variety of primarily federal and state-based funding sources. Recent federal and state budget cuts left several stream gages unfunded and state agencies had to make the difficult decision to shut many down. While United States Geological Survey (USGS) is primarily responsible for gage maintenance and data, many stations throughout Montana are financially supported by cost share agreements between USGS and state agencies, tribes, or private entities. What the 2017-2018 shut-offs brought to light is the lack of coordination in the various purposes and funding schemes for different stations as well as the ill-defined gaging station beneficiaries. Shut-offs came with limited advance notice and resulted in significant public outcry. For example, the Blackfoot Watershed – which relies daily on gage readings to inform drought response actions – lost two gages in the middle of a drought year, complicating the process of engaging irrigators in water use restrictions.

Gaging station information is public and readily available. There is currently no method for assessing who uses the information or for what purpose. We anecdotally know that many economic sectors, including agriculture, energy, and outfitting, use gaging station information to assess landscape conditions for business purposes. Even more local governments and community organizations use information to assess climate conditions and plan for changing circumstances, including ecosystem vulnerability and emergency response. Historical data collected by these stations is critical for making informed decisions. Without this information, we’re essentially blind. The partners on the Blackfoot Drought Response Committee use stream gage information to help producers plan for potential drought conditions and to coordinate voluntary water conservation when river levels drop below the requirements of the state’s in-stream flow right for fisheries.

While budget cuts have seriously threatened stream gages, one positive outcome of this threat is the forming of a broad stakeholder group that is working to identify the needs for sustaining the gaging network. The Montana Legislature Water Policy Interim Committee is paying special attention to these needs and the solutions proposed by those who have stepped forward to offer their time and ideas. With the help of state agency partners - Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; Department of Natural Resources, and the US Geological Survey — as well as local watershed organizations and citizens, the group is digging into the answers to tough questions about how to maintain this critical data for present and future decision makers at every level.

Here are some stream gage network high points, boiled down:

  1.      There are 211 stream gages in Montana that are part of the US Geological Survey (USGS) Stream Gage Partner Network.
  2.      Data for those stream gages can be found here:
  3.      Gages measure stream height and then compute streamflow using a variety of continuously changing data sets.
  4.      Gages cost money – on average, $18,080 for a year-round gage and $12,700 for a seasonal (7-month) gage.
  5.      We all use the data from stream gages, from everything from studying how fish migrate to alerting residents of rising floodwaters.
  6.      We all help to pay for the stream gaging program – some help more than others.

“Let me count the ways.”

Gages are essential to us to manage the river and to set priority dates.” – Craig Dalgarno, Musselshell River Water Commissioner.

On the Musselshell River, there are two things that we think about first – water rights and flooding.  And, gaging stations are essential when our daily decisions factor water rights and flooding into the mix. But as our Chief Water Commissioner, Peter Marchi, said, “[Stream gages] are a phenomenal resource.”  He meant for everything related to water, not just water distribution. Here is a quick list of the uses for gaging stations that we discussed:

Arguably the most critical use is for emergency planning and notifications.  On May 31, Roundup was hit by a hailstorm that brought baseball-sized hail and a downpour to a very localized area.  This caused the Musselshell River to rise 3.5 feet in less than 8 hours. Musselshell County DES Coordinators had their hands full.  Because of previous floods, they knew at what gage height what roads, bridges, and public and private property would start to flood. As they watched gages, they issued warnings to residents on the river to begin moving livestock, equipment, and to make evacuations if necessary.  They warned of road closures and called on the County road crew to begin protecting infrastructure. Coordinator Justin Russell linked the stream gage websites to his social media account, and after information on the May 31 hailstorm and flood event was posted, there were more than 22,000 visits to the site, this not only saved thousands of phone calls to his office, but it also made the information easily available.  Justin says, “Upstream gages are our best friends.”


Floodwaters of 2011 inundated parts of the city of Roundup and surrounding areas. Gaging station data helps the Department of Emergency Services know when to warn property owners of rising waters. Photo Credit: Musselshell Watershed Coalition, photo by Chris Boyer, Kestrel Aerial

This is not an exhaustive list, but we are working to get there, because, as Bill Bergin, Jr., a Musselshell River landowner and Musselshell Watershed Coalition board member says, “gaging stations are critical for being next to the river.”

These conversations are happening all over the state, including a group comprised of local, state, and federal partners that are collaborating to devise a solution to the ever-present issue of how to fund the stream gages.  There is a complex network of partners who fund gages. On average, the breakdown across the state for funding is:

Following the lead of Jen Downing, Big Hole Watershed Committee Executive Director and board member of the Montana Watershed Coordination Council, this group has proposed a draft resolution for a study bill that will look at the many aspects of gaging stations.  The group is also considering a bill that will formalize its activities to maintain the information sharing and coordination needs that were identified through this funding crisis.

Coordination of stream gage information is more complicated than it seems at first. What the group wants to ensure is that in the future, we will be better informed and prepared to make difficult decisions about stream gage locations and priorities. The group is also committed to exploring new funding mechanisms that build on the importance of the network to generate the financial support needed to maintain it. In tough budget times, we need to be prepared to make tough decisions and to equitably share the burden of maintaining the information we need. “With the broad scope of stream gage beneficiaries, we should be able to justify the funding,” says Erin Farris-Olsen, Executive Director of the Montana Watershed Coordination Council, “What we need to maintain is consistent education and awareness about the importance of the stream gage network. These stations are more than data stored away on a computer or a website. The information collected is used daily by real Montanans upholding their livelihood.”  Check out this draft to see what the study is proposed to consider, and consider attending the next WPIC meeting on September 10.

-Laura Nowlin

Contact Montana Watershed Coordination Council Executive Director, Erin Farris-Olsen, to find out the latest that is happening with this group.

*While many folks use “gauge” instead of “gage,” the USGS and then state both spell stream gage without the “u.” So we’ve followed their lead here.