A photo of a vandalized stream gauge on the White River.

Bomb Proofing our Stream Gauges – Vandalism & Hydrological Monitoring

Wow. What next? Northwest Cable News reports that a homemade bomb was used to completely obliterate a USGS gauge on the White River. The gauge is so critical for flood protection that USGS technicians replaced it within a matter of hours.

I had thought I had seen the ultimate in gauge vandalism when I was in El Paso, where a cableway across the Rio Grande River was missing the right bank A-Frame because it had been stolen by vandals. Even the orifice lines needed to be imbedded in concrete to prevent damage by vandals at this location.

I used to operate a gauge close to a small town where the gauge clearing by the side of the river became a frequent bush party site. Apparently, joy rides in the cablecar are so popular as a party activity that no locking system was secure enough. At that site, I resorted to simply leaving the car at mid-span.

In many locations the aircraft marker cones (needed to keep low-flying planes and helicopters from bisecting themselves on the cableway) are full of bullet holes and even the gauge houses are similarly well ventilated.

Back in the day of simple hasp and pin locking systems it was not uncommon to have to use heavy duty bolt cutters to remove bullet damaged padlocks.  Apparently, it is only in the movies that it is easy to shoot off a padlock. The use of armored security bars solves that problem but good luck getting into your gauge house when the lock malfunctions within a security bar.

Measures to prevent vandalism are necessary even at pristine wilderness locations.

It just seems to be a cost of doing business. In remote, locations stealth monitoring techniques where every component of the monitoring system is either concealed or camouflaged seems to be the best method. In urban environments, hardening the gauge house in concrete or heavy gauge steel seems to be more effective.

In every case, a bit of time spent to get to know your neighbors is always a good idea.

Back in a simpler time, early in my career, it was expected that a part of your day in the field would be spent talking to people in the communities around your gauges. Those rambling conversations across the fence with the old geezer living next to the river may not only provide an effective security system for your gauge but might also be a source of valuable information for data interpretation (e.g. when, exactly did the ice go out?). It was also invaluable for site maintenance (e.g. where can I find a piece of 2” galvanized pipe without going all the way back into town?).

I have great memories of friendships made while in the field. It may just be coincidence but it always seemed to me that some of the most interesting people happen to live close to stream gauges. In the Yukon, people at the margins of society are called the ‘colorful five percent’ and I certainly met a lot of colorful people in the course of my work. There was never, ever, an incidence of vandalism at locations where I knew everyone by name.

I wonder if the workload and urgency with which stream hydrographers work under today is not, at least in part, responsible for what seems to be an increasing trend of gauge vandalism. Nobody likes strangers in their community and if you only have time to quickly do some mysterious activity on an infrequent basis you will not be a welcome visitor for long.

  • Padmakar Kelkar
    Posted at 6:12 am, December 23, 2012

    Dear Sir,
    Have you considered India in this report? The problems and solutions are quite different as for Vandalism and other aspect. We have already facing the problem and same
    may be the case with other under developed and developing countries. Please add these in your report as well.

  • Alex Springall
    Posted at 7:28 pm, December 24, 2012

    Vandalism has always been a problem, although as you say, good relations with the locals can help prevent it.
    We had one case where, because the site was polled hourly, we knew almost exactly the time when the vandalism occurred. A police car had passed the site where a party was in progress that night and one of the police knew some of the participants. When confronted, the vandal put his hands up. Score one conviction, with a heavy fine and repayment of the cost of damages.

  • Michael Arend
    Posted at 3:53 pm, June 21, 2013

    In the interest of correcting incorrect info, the gage pictured is not on the White River nor is it a USGS gage. It is on the Colorado River.

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