The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 31, 2013

Federal funding cut threatens New River gauge

THURMOND — Outfitters, the state and Fayette County have joined forces to keep a gauge on the New River operating after its federal funding was cut.

The gauge at Thurmond, which is maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey, provides data on water flow, stage and volume. Commercial rafting outfitters, recreational rafters and kayakers use the data to determine whether the river is safe for whitewater activities.

Historically, the National Park Service funded the gauge’s operational cost. But the park service can now provide only a third of the funding because of budget cuts, New River Gorge National River Superintendent Patricia Kicklighter told the Charleston Daily Mail

“The USGS raised the operational cost of the gauge and our budget went down,” Kicklighter said. “We notified the USGS in April and they helped fund the gauge through the remainder of the fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30.”

Operating and maintaining a gauge such as the one at Thurmond costs an average $15,000 annually, said Shaun Wicklein, supervisory hydrologist for the USGS.

The USGS can authorize to pay up to 50 percent of river gauges’ operational costs as long as there are additional federal, state and local funding partners. The West Virginia Whitewater Commission, the West Virginia Professional River Outfitters Association, the West Virginia Wildwater Association and the Fayette County Commission have agreed to contribute funding to keep the Thurmond gauge operating through the federal fiscal 2014 year.

The Thurmond gauge is among up to 375 gauges across the nation threatened with a suspension of service because of automatic budget cuts, according to the USGS’ website. But it’s the only threatened gauge in West Virginia.

“From an economic standpoint, the Thurmond gauge is crucial,” Don Beyer, a whitewater commission member, told the newspaper. “It wasn’t a big surprise that the USGS was threatening to suspend service at hundreds of gauges around the country because of budgetary reasons. The question, however, was why they chose the Thurmond gauge in particular?”

Funding the USGS gauge is cheaper than outfitters installing their own gauge but it could be difficult in the future to gather enough money to continue its operation, said Dave Bassage, chief of staff at ACE Adventure Resort.

“Whitewater is not as popular as it used to be,” Bassage told the newspaper. “The figure quoted by the USGS is not a one-time fee. It is an annual fee so it will be challenging each year to come up with funds and satisfy the USGS.”

Bobby Bower, executive director of the outfitters association, said he is working to raise public interest in the gauge and is looking for funding partners to keep it operational.

“We don’t want service suspended at the Thurmond gauge,” Bower said. “This gauge has a huge economic impact on the area. It is a key component to keeping people safe while they are on the river.”

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