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Water Watch.

Byline: Mike Stahlberg The Register-Guard

SWEET HOME - Sitting in a wooden cable car suspended above the South Santiam River, Adam Stonewall lowered a large metal object shaped like a World War II bomb through an opening in the floor and into the water.

No need to alert Homeland Security.

For Stonewall, a hydrologist for the United States Geological Survey, was simply going about the business of assuring that the South Santiam Below Foster river gauging station continues to provide a steady flow of accurate information. What looked like a bomb was actually a sounding weight, used to hold a flow meter in place in the river current.

The South Santiam gauge, located just downstream of Foster Dam, is part of a network of more than 250 in Oregon operated by the USGS and other state and federal agencies.

Information gathered by these automated stations - much of it relayed by satellite and available on the Internet in real time - is a windfall for outdoor enthusiasts looking to plan river-related outings.

Fishermen and white-water paddlers once had to drive to their favorite streams to see whether they were "in shape" after the overnight rain they heard pounding on their roofs.

Now they can accurately gauge the conditions they'd encounter on dozens of different waterways without even sticking a foot out-of-doors. Details of water height, flow in cubic feet per second (cfs) - and sometimes even the temperature and a measurement of clarity - are just a mouse-click away.

Experienced anglers and kayakers can translate data about river stages and cfs into a mental picture of their favorite rivers' fishing or paddling shape.

"The gauge is just a reference point," said Guy Santiago of Oregon River Sports, a Eugene kayak shop. "Everybody takes a look at the gauge and decides for themselves what that means."

For people unfamiliar with a particular waterway, information on suitable river levels can be obtained in guidebooks such as, for paddlers, "Soggy Sneakers" (Mountaineers Books) and, for anglers, "Oregon River Maps & Fishing Guide" (Frank Amato Publications).

Personal experience, however, is the best guide, said Santiago, because some people prefer rivers at levels that other paddlers consider to be unrunnable.

"You should always check a river flow when you put on, and then make a note of it," he said. "That becomes a new reference point for you."

Several agencies - including the Oregon Water Resources Department, NOAA's Northwest River Forecast Center and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - offer Web pages that provide real-time river level and flow information.

The vast majority of the river gauges in Oregon, however, are operated by the USGS, which contracts with other agencies that want river data gathered for such purposes as flood control and water supply planning.

That the information also turns out to be very useful to individual taxpayers who fish, kayak or enjoy hiking to thundering waterfalls is a happy coincidence.

The USGS has been gathering river information for more than 100 years. At first, it relied upon "observers" who read a manual gauge once each day.

"They'd phone the information in or, depending on where they lived, write it down in a book and mail the book in once a month," said Glen Hess, chief of the USGS Portland field office.

Over the years, the agency kept developing new and more efficient ways to generate and gather accurate river information. In the 1970s, for example, the USGS had automated dial-up gauging stations that reported in by telephone.

They weren't much help to anglers and other river users.

"We didn't typically give those numbers out to the public because most stations relied on battery power and the more calls, the quicker the battery would wear out," Hess said.

Readings from major gauging stations eventually found their way into the newspapers - 24 hours or more after they were taken.

It was still anybody's guess what impact that overnight rainstorm had on the Siuslaw at Mapleton, to name one gauge prone to rapid changes.

Several technological breakthroughs in the early 1990s combined to make river flow information available an hour or two after it was collected.

"About the time that the Internet came along, we got three new things that really helped us," Hess said. "Solar panels, which gave us an improved power supply. Cell phones became available, allowing us to go into areas that didn't have land lines and giving us many more sites that were on a real-time basis. And satellite transmitting capabilities improved such that we could get the information every hour instead of once every four hours."

Timely information is useful information. As long as it's accurate.

Stonewall is one of several USGS employees whose job includes servicing the gauging stations, collecting data stored on site and double-checking the accuracy of the various instruments.

Which is why he was dangling in that cable car Monday, taking soundings and flow readings necessary to verify that the gauge was calibrated to provide accurate measurements of the volume of water moving past the station.

He found South Santiam Below Foster to be in good working order.

While the USGS gathers the raw data, various agencies - and even private parties - take the data and present the information in different formats on the Internet. Several have graphic interfaces that allow users to look at a map on the screen and click on gauges on the rivers that interest them. The USGS site even allows a user to customize a page that will list only the gauges in which he or she is interested.

The Northwest River Forecast Center's Web site, for about 100 spots around Oregon, adds a forecast of what the river gauge readings are expected to look like over the next few days.

Those forecasts are based on complex computer modeling that takes into account expected rainfall, snowpack, temperatures, soil conditions and several other factors.

"Forecasting the amount of rainfall is probably one of the most difficult things," said Andy Bryant, hydrologist at the River Forecast Center in Portland. "But if we hit it pretty close, then usually the river forecast is pretty close, too."

Bryant says that forward-looking feature makes his agency's Web site one of the most useful to anglers and boaters, who are usually most concerned about what a river will be like a few hours or days in the future.

Dedicated creek kayakers also use the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers site to get daily reports on the rate of inflow and discharge at Willamette Basin flood control reservoirs. That information can be used to estimate how much water is flowing in various tributary streams. Deducting the amount of outflow at Hills Creek Reservoir from the amount of inflow at Lookout Point, for example, provides strong hints about paddling conditions on the North Fork of the Middle Fork Willamette, as well as about the amount of water flowing over Salt Creek Falls.

Among Oregon kayakers, however, the single most popular site is undoubtedly a private one assembled 10 years ago by Pat Welch of Oregon State University. Welch says about 1,000 individuals a day visit his Kayak Page.

In addition to river height and flow readings from various gauges, Welch's page also provides "calculations" (estimates) of flows in many tributaries that don't have official measuring stations.

His site also includes a color-coded status report that lists whether Welch considers the stream "High," "Low," or "Okay" to run.

One of the most comprehensive and easiest to use river information sites is the Oregon Water Resources Department's. It provides a map of Oregon with 16 different watershed basins marked on it.

Click on the outline of the area you're interested in, and the site brings up a list of links to all real-time gauging stations in the area, regardless of whether operated by the USGS, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation or the OWRD itself.


Where to Go for River Flow Info:

Northwest River Forecast Center ( or (

United States Geological Survey (

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ( or (541) 937-3852 for recorded inflow/outflow report on seven upper Willamette Basin reservoirs

Oregon Water Resources Department (

Pat Welch's "Kayak Page" (

Elk River Hatchery - Recorded daily report on Elk River conditions (541-332-7025)



Alsea River at Tidewater / 4 to 6 1/2 feet for drift fishing

Clackamas River at Estacada / 10 to 13 ft. for drift fishing

Chetco River near Brookings / 2 1/2 to 4 ft. for drift fishing

Elk River Hatchery (recording) / 4 to 6 ft. for drift fishing

Nehalem River near Foss / 3 to 5 1/2 ft. for drift fishing

Nestucca River near Beaver / 4 to 6 1/2 ft. for drift fishing

Sandy River near Bull Run / 8 1/2 to 11 ft. for drift fishing

Sixes River / Best when neighboring Elk is 3 1/2 to 5 1/2 feet

Siletz River near Siletz / 3 1/2 to 6 1/2 ft. for drift fishing

Siuslaw River near Mapleton / 4 to 7 ft. for drift fishing

/ 9 to 12 ft. for kayaking on Lake Creek

South Fork Coquille at Powers / 3 to 4 1/2 ft. for fishing

Umpqua at Elkton / 3 to 5 ft. for drift fishing

Wilson River near Tillamook / 3 to 6 ft. for drift fishing

*Suggested levels for winter steelhead "plunking" are considerably higher.


Adam Stonewall, a hydrologist for the United States Geological Survey, takes a cable car over a gauge house on the Santiam River to manually check the water flow. Stonewall's work helps assure that the readings provided to the fishing and boating public are accurate. The sounding weight is used to stabilize the water flow meter in the river's current. There are more than 250 gauging stations in Oregon. Mike Stahlberg / The Register-Guard Adam Stonewall checks the calibration of visual gauges on the South Santiam River near Sweet Home. Much of the information can now be found on the World Wide Web.
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Title Annotation:Recreation; River gauges provide anglers and boaters with a steady stream of useful information
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 16, 2004
Previous Article:South Eugene hammers Redmond.
Next Article:Technology blending indoors and outdoors, for better and worse.

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