Blanco River flood brings calls for more flow gauges in Central Texas

USGS water flow gauge at Wimberley rests on its slab after May 23rd flood waters tore it from its location beside RR 12. Blanco River flows in the background. (Robert Maxwell, KXAN)

UPDATE: June 12th, 2015 - A US Geological Survey spokesperson confirms crews have been out along the Blanco River sourcing the best spots to add flow gauges.  "At the request of local cooperators, USGS staff have been visiting sites along the Blanco river for potential locations of one or more streamgages (sic) upstream of Wimberley, TX," wrote Jenn LaVista in an email.

She did not clarify which local agencies USGS is allying with. KXAN also reached out to the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and Blanco County's Office of Emergency Management. GBRA spokesperson Lamarriol Smith had no new information to share.

BLANCO, Texas (KXAN) – When the water rises in Central Texas, so do the chorus of voices shouting for a more effective way to warn of hard-to-predict flash floods that can change and take away lives in an instant.

“We have been approached by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority about installing additional gauges in the Upper Blanco River,” confirmed Bob Joseph with the US Geological Survey. The news comes just two weeks after the river not only surpassed federal 500-year flood plain markers, but tore up a number of USGS flood flow gauges designed to track how fast and how high local rivers and creeks rise during heavy rainstorms like the one that drenched the region Memorial Day weekend.

“(The water) came six feet into the house. And we were above the 500-year flood plain,” Kevin Ash told KXAN. An alert neighbor helped save his elderly parents who were at home on May 23. They drove off their riverside property as the water licked at the tires on their car. Other neighbors hid in their second-story attic as the water rose within inches of drowning them.

Prior to that, other flood waters had only reached a fire pit a good 40 feet from the back porch.

Ash says his parents received no warning the heavy, debris-filled water was moving so high and fast it would take down the Fischer Store Road bridge on Hwy 181, just a quarter-mile upstream. The raging waters scattered large sections of road into the basin below.

“They left with their keys, mom's purse and they were barefooted,” Ash said has he cleaned up the tranquil property, salvaging only a small covered trailer’s worth of furniture, tools and belongings.

A flood gauge, as some people commonly call them, likely would have given notice of that surge of water, allowing forecasters to alert local leaders to send flash flood warning notifications over regional reverse 911 services and social media.

USGS is already looking at new gauge locations

Joseph said USGS technical teams have been dispatched to source a good upstream location to install one or more water flow gauges to determine water flow in cubic feet per second (cps), and water height.

During the storm, when the gauge in Wimberley washed away, the cps reading went from about 700 cps to 70,000 cps. The reading literally went off the chart before the transmission went dead late on May 23.

USGS data graph shows the point where a flooding Blanco River destroyed the gauge May 23rd, 2015
USGS data graph shows the point where a flooding Blanco River destroyed the gauge May 23, 2015

There are no gauges upstream of Wimberley, nearly 40 miles along the Blanco River’s 87-mile length, despite the staggering population growth downriver in Hays County. In addition to Wimberley, San Marcos also suffered tremendous flood-related losses in May.

“It's a financial resource issue," Joseph said for the lack of gauges. "The USGS, as well as other entities, have prioritization.”

Joseph would not speculate on any new leverage his bosses in Washington, D.C. might now have in asking for extra funding to better protect Central Texans. He said it is typically up to local governments to recommend additions to a flood-prediction arsenal -- at least those that are prepared to pay for them.

The General Manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, one of 19 such entities in Texas, said he intends to put the flow gauge issue in front of Congressional leaders.

In recent years, federal dollars aimed at flood risk management have dwindled. Now, local government and watershed protection groups pay up to half of the cost of hardware like flow gauges.

Each one costs about $25,000, not including annual maintenance and calibration costs, USGS records show.

Hays County leaders last winter approved $8,000 to help pay for a new gauge installed on the Blanco River at Hwy 80 in San Marcos. The Memorial Day weekend flood damaged that unit and four others in the area – including the gauge on Ranch Road 12 in Wimberley.

The day after the storms, USGS crews replaced that unit with a brand new one. A few yards downhill, the destroyed unit still rests on its concrete slab where the powerful current left it. Nearby, someone hung an American flag on a storm-battered roadside tree, so passing motorists headed out of Wimberley get a reminder of where some of the future protections might come.

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