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The Buckhannon River, seen from the Riverwalk Park. / Photo by Katie Kuba

City council approves Buckhannon River gauge upgrade, a decision expected to improve river forecast accuracy

BUCKHANNON – A representative with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday told city officials the Buckhannon River’s river gauge didn’t measure up, so city council agreed to upgrade it — at no cost to the city — in a decision that NOAA officials say will improve forecast accuracy.

Nick Webb, senior service hydrologist with NOAA, addressed council at its most recent meeting Sept. 1 about the potential upgrade, saying the initiative had been in the works for some time.

“This is a project that I had approached Jay [Jay Hollen, city engineer] with the city and Steve with the county [Wykoff, Department of Upshur County Homeland Security and Emergency Management] about several months ago – about upgrading the Buckhannon River gauge to make it River Forecast Center fully supported gauge,” Webb said. “This is something that has been on the agenda and somewhat pursued going back 20, 25 years, and we’ve never actually gotten much headway on it.”

The River Forecast Center is located in Wilmington, Ohio, and according to Webb’s presentation, uses sophisticated models that incorporate soil moisture, precipitation that has fallen, terrain/slope, and a 48-hour precipitation forecast. Webb said the city’s current river gauge is a radar gauge and wire-weight that was attached to the Hall Road Bridge in 1969.

“Buckhannon’s [river gauge] is just observation only, it is not currently supported by the River Forecast Center,” Webb said. “Now, we can issue forecasts for the Buckhannon River, and that’s provided by NWS (National Weather Service) in Charleston, our office.”

There are several limitations to observation-only river gauges like the Buckhannon River’s, including the fact that forecasts are provided during high-water events only, they use a dated model and the forecast estimates past precipitation and does not account for future precipitation, Webb explained.

“The rating curve used is approximately 50 years old, so you can imagine the discrepancies in the forecast accuracy from us – that we issue – compared to the ones that are issued by the River Forecast Center, which is the gold standard when it comes to river forecasts,” he said.

Webb said the benefits of upgrading the gauge are full River Forecast Center support as well as the addition of forecasts out to five days, probabilistic forecasts and more accurate forecasts.

“It would allow for better planning and response from city officials and emergency management during and after unexpected high-water events,” he said.

Even better? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh agreed to fully fund the remaining $11,360 necessary to complete the project and as of now, neither the city nor the county will be billed.

“They have agreed to fully fund this upgrade so as of right now, there is not anticipated funding coming from the city or the county for this so that’s good news for the city and the county,” Webb told council. “The Corps is going to fully fund this, it’s a good chunk of change that’s not just a one-time cost.”

Councilman David Thomas made a motion to upgrade the Hall Road Bridge river gauge, which was seconded by councilman David McCauley prior to passing unanimously.

Webb said he would work with U.S.G.S. to finalize a funding agreement and begin collecting data.

“Hopefully thereafter, we can get much better forecasts out to you guys for planning and response purposes,” Webb said.

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