Who sells river gauges?

My favorite local stream doesn’t have an on-line gauge. A couple people sometimes suggest “they ought to have a gauge there.” Well, sure, that’d be nice, but there isn’t much justification–there’s a well defined flood plain and it is only a few miles down to the Bay, with no major development.

I saw a 2009 article in which somebody from USGS was saying it costs $15,000 a year to maintain a gauge. No telling what it takes to get one installed.

Anybody know where you can buy one? They must have gauges for things like water tanks and other non-riverine use. I was wondering if it might be practical for a club to build and operate a gauge. There are utilities at the bridge where our painted, RC gauge is, so wouldn’t have to string wire too far.


There are a lot of complications to measuring flow properly. You need a reliable way to measure the depth. To do it accurately you install a stilling-well so there is no current where you make the measurement. Then you need a level recorder. Different kinds but I think the USGS usually uses a float and shaft encoder. Then you need a way to log the data or transmit it.

But the biggest issue is how you relate the level to flow in cfs (or metric units if you prefer). To do that you need to develop a rating curve. You can measure the velocity across a transect of the river at many different levels and come up with a relationship.

If you don’t care about the actual flow value, then you can just measure the level and use your experience to figure out how good the kayaking will be at different levels. For that, you can even use a stick gauge (basically a stick or board with marks) at the put in or somewhere and keep notes.

RC gauge
What we have been using for time beyond memory is a Randy Carter gauge. This is painted on the bridge at the put in. It is marked off in quarter feet, plus or monus zero, where zero is the mininimum floatable level.

We’d just like to replicate that, on-line.

Web Cam?
Perhaps have the camera include the RC gauge in its field of view?

crowd-sourced data
Since more and more USGS gauges are getting decommissioned – and attempting to develop and install your own might get expensive – maybe the next best thing would be to have a way for paddlers to report the level on an RC-type gauge at popular put-ins, via the internet. (If a measured gauge weren’t available, you could report a generic level such as low/average/high, maybe a 0-10 rating scale would work.) Maybe have the ability to punch in a short blurb on paddling conditions too.

Imagine Paddling.net incorporating this feature into the Launch Site Map and the accompanying smartphone app. Power to the people.

That’s probably the cheapest way. The only issue would be power. Solar and/or wind with some batteries would be the best bet if no land power is available. A water turbine would be cool, but could get damaged in flood conditions.

Ryan L.

I’ll be happy to sell you one

I think the gauge is not the expensive part. I think getting the signal to your website will be the biggest cost.

Maintenance usually entails replacing the part of the stilling well that has been removed by logs during flood stages.

webcam approach has merits
Thanks for all the info. The webcam idea is perhaps the most practical. All the pieces could fit together to do just what we need, although no out-of-the-box solution jumps out via internet searches.

We have the gauge painted on the bridge, and this is the ages-old reference for paddling this section of the river. What we need, is a way to read the gauge without having to go all the way to the put-in.

Solar powered webcams are available. These could be wirelessly connected to a router, if one were close enough, a remote possibility. More likely, we’d need to use a cell-phone. There is cell service in that area. I think streaming video over a cell phone would work, but I’m also wary of what the data charges would be. Of course, we don’t need streaming video. One picture a day would be vastly better than what we have now. Four pictures a day would be fabulous. The pictures could be uploaded to our club web site, and we’d have an excellent reference to let us know the river level.

All the technology exists at costs a club could afford. What I don’t see readily available is the combination of solar collector, battery, camera, cell phone, housing, and software/controller to make it all work. I feel capable of putting together all but the latter.

At this point, I want to float the idea by my club, to see if the club would consider funding it, and Maryland DNR, since the remote sending unit would need to be installed on park property. If those two entities don’t go along with the idea, there is no use in delving further into the problem.

Additionally, several site problems will need to be addressed, like how to keep the devices from being wiped out in floods, stolen, or vandalized.

Posters: thanks for your ideas. Thoughts and comments welcomed.


Alternate Idea

– Last Updated: Jan-03-13 12:31 AM EST –

Mentioned the issue to a local hobby tinker forum
in the Ann Arbor, MI area, full of techie geeky people :-)

A possible scenario- cut/pasted from the discussion
- Perhaps go with IR or ultrasonic sensor to
measure distance to an enclosed float.
A float attached to a rotational encoder might
give a larger range of accurate distances.
- If there's a requirement to use visual verification
of a water line, process the still images locally
(at the collection site) and send data sparingly.
- Cell phone networks will be costly.
You'll probably have to use a consumer cell phone
and data plan which might be a theft target.

The best option may be low-bandwidth mesh network.
There are a variety of XBee radios designed for
embedded use that would work perfectly.
One of them has a 1200m outdoor range using 50mW to transmit.
If your measurement sites are more than 1200m
from a base station, you'd either chain sites
together (and collect measurements from each
while also relaying other sites) or use a more powerful radio.
The max range is rated 80km (yes! 80,000 meters),
but you'll need a high gain antennae, more power
and clear visibility.
Urban ranges are much, much lower.
At the base station you hopefully have power and
better security to connect to the Internet.
If not, use one of the longer range radios
and keep relaying through them until you reach
somewhere you have an Internet connection.
The whole thing will run off a 9V battery,
so a cheap solar panel can power it.

-You can prototype a complete collection site with
an Arduino Uno, XBee, sensor, solar panel and
PVC pipe enclosure for about $150.
-Adding a camera will jump the cost by at least
$50 and you'll have to use a more powerful
micro-controller to process the images.
The fast, new Arduino Due is software compatible
with the Uno, so you can start with the Uno
and upgrade if necessary.
You'll still use the same low-bandwidth radio solution.
It will just take longer to process and transmit,
so it needs more power.

I had hit up the USGS guys for gauges on the
Shiawassee River in Michigan a few years back.

I'm definitely interested in exploring alternatives
to patch a dying USGS network of equipment.

Video cameras don’t see through rain very well, so there are times when that will be an issue for the serious WW crowd. Camera’s will also need to be mounted high enough that a flood stage river will not take them out (rivers rising 20 to 30 feet is not uncommon). Gauges will also need to be on the downstream side of bridges where logs do not pile up.

I have also heard rumor of using terrain maps and rainfall data to predict flow. Other factors would also need to be considered for any chance at accuracy – ground saturation, underground pools, and such are obviously important in some areas.


Thanks (no text)

Something to consider— Ive been paddling 48 years…

never needed a gauge on any of the rivers…(USA, Canada, Mexico,) that Ive paddled. Included Class 3( IV in whitewater rafts). IF its at flood stage one usually knows…ie Its spring and theres runoff, people are sandbagging, nobody is paddling, the river outfitters are not going out etc etc If its not spring runoff, then paddle…how know? Everyone else is paddling.

Do you really need a gauge?

Just wondering why anyone would need a gauge?

Progress, evolution, technology
Times change and instant info on an app in your pocket

takes some of the guess work out of it all.

He gave the reason

– Last Updated: Jan-03-13 5:50 PM EST –

Below a certain level, it's too low to paddle, or at least too low to go there for the fun of it. It sounds to me like it's a bit of a whitewater river, because it's pretty normal for whitewater rivers drop to levels that are too low to be worth messing with. After all, the reason to go to such a river is to have fun, not walk great distances dragging your boat. That's actually something that is mentioned as often as not in the various trip reports and other commentary from the whitewater folks here (think about all the times someone mentions getting a phone call that "things look good for tomorrow - let's go", regarding rivers that wouldn't be worth the trip on any average day), so I don't see why the concept of checking the gauge seems unusual to you. It's particularly true of the upper stretches of such rivers. As just one example, there are dozens of posts here each year about paddling (or often, not paddling) the upper Buffalo River in Arkasas. Ever see one of those posts that didn't include a comment about water level? (especially for all those cases where people had to change plans and go farther downstream instead)

Oh, and there are even flatwater rivers in my area that are very scenic and fun a lot of the time, but if the gauge is below a certain level, you probably couldn't pay me to go there. With more rivers within 80 miles than I'll probably ever be able to check out, I sure wouldn't elect to go for what's sure to be a "walk and drag" on one that most people would call unfloatable. I'd need some OTHER really good reason to go there in spite of the low water.

The South
Here in the south, we don’t have snowmelt runoff and in many areas floods are uncommon, and locally we have no outfitters. We are very dependent on gauges and visuals of river levels to know which rivers are at good levels. We do have a lot of runs without gauges, but you often get some idea by a nearby gauge in the adjacent watershed.

The whitewater runs that don’t have gauges rarely get run unless the whitewater is particularly good – I can think of a handful of creeky runs where the locals ask for visuals.

I sell 'em, you spoiled brats
I have a seven foot section of a river gauge that was torn loose during the flood of the Schoharie Creek in April 1987 – a flood that tore down the NY Thruway bridge over the Schoharie.

I found the gauge the next day atop a rubble pile on the bank when we were conducting an AMC test of three canoes on the Blenheim waves: the MR ME vs. the Whitesell Piranha vs. the Blue Hole Sunburst II (which narrowly won).

You can nail this gauge section in a river and then go drive to look at it. That’s what we all had do in the 70’s and 80’s. Drive and go look.

The big technological breakthrough was the cassette tape telephone answering machine. The river spotters driving around the northeast on Thursday and Friday could call a river that had water into the machine. Others could access the answering machine if they had the secret code.

Computer access to river gauges. Bah. Humbug. The next thing you wusses will do is buy “Whitewater - The Video Game” and paddle rivers from your living rooms. BTW, I sell that, too. It comes with a Perception saddle that bucks and pitches in synch with the 3D-Surround Sound river video.

Drive and go look?
You had cars back then?

Pretty funny Glen. That video game sounds pretty cool. I’d like to order one but my wife might get mad–I’m assuming it throws a bucket of water on you if you capsize and wifey don’t like squishy carpet!

I remember my canoeing mentor used to call the river-line for levels back when I was getting started. But I never have. Gauges were already online when I started in '99.


ps, if that product doesn’t exist, it needs to.

Pre-Packed Tried and True

– Last Updated: Jan-04-13 12:32 PM EST –

Scroll around this website and drop them an email
I'm pretty sure you'll get some solid leads and info


Number 5 gets into
Solar Powered Outdoor Wireless Network Cameras

USGS gauges
I rode along with the USGS guys to check the NF Stillaguamish gauge (western Washington). Every 6 weeks they have to verify it by checking the simple meter stick measurement against the fancy stuff. The realtime gauge uses a tank of nitrogen (housed in a 1930’s concrete tower built for the gauge) that pushes a bubble once a minute or so through a submerged tube into the river. The gauge measures the back pressure to determine the river level. The data is transmitted wireless.


three piece solution
Android phone.

Waterproof case.

Solar charger.