Federal budget cuts led to the removal of a river gauge that measures water levels on the Sebasticook River, information that the National Weather Service says could have been useful in forecasting conditions before severe flooding tore apart sections of downtown Dexter on Wednesday.

The river gauges, which track data such as temperature, stream flow and pollution levels, are critical in forecasting location-specific flood warnings, according to hydrologist Tom Hawley, of the weather service in Gray.

Hawley said the absence of a gauge on the Sebasticook hindered the weather service’s ability to predict the flooding in Dexter.

“It’s like forecasting the temperature without having a thermometer,” Hawley said Thursday. “Without the gauge there, the data is not completely reliable.”

Dexter Town Manager Shelley Watson said water levels were still high and the town was assessing damages Thursday. “It’s still too high to do much of anything,” she said, adding that the town received no official flood warnings earlier in the week.

When an inch of rain and an inch of snow combined with run-off water and snowmelt across the state Tuesday night, flooding swept across the state and generated dozens of flood warnings, some of which were still in effect Thursday.


Along the Kennebec River in Augusta flooding was not as significant as officials had feared. The water level crested around 17 feet early Wednesday night, less than the 20 feet projected earlier in the week. Flood stage is 12 feet.

Weather service officials say they weren’t able to provide the most accurate or quickest flood warnings for the Dexter area without data from the Sebasticook River gauge. Funding for the device was discontinued in January during controversial federald budget cuts.

Within the last year, 581 gauges across the country have been discontinued, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which oversees the gauges’ operation. The importance of each gauge is critical, according to Gregory Stewart, chief data analyst for the Maine office of the geological survey.

“It was one critical gauge; it wasn’t just fluff or extra,” Stewart said. “Maine only has 70 stream flow gauges, which is few compared to a state like Pennsylvania, which has about 200 for roughly the same area.”

Allen Fuller, a Benton resident who lives along the river, said he has been concerned about the gauge’s removal since last year and he’s frustrated that no additional funding has come through to keep it in place. “Flooding is only one piece of it,” Fuller said. “Not having information on stream height is potentially a serious problem, but it seems like no one wants to come up with the money to fund it.”

The cost of operating a gauge for one year is $13,200 and is usually shared by the federal government and state or other entities such as municipalities, dam operators or other agencies.


In Maine, the federal government fully funds only 12 of the state’s 70 gauges.

When the Pittsfield gauge was removed, the federal government was offering to pay 40 percent of the cost, but every attempt to get the matching funds fell through.

Kevin Kelley, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Thursday that Collins recently sent a letter to leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee urging that adequate funding be provided for the program this year.

In addition to forecasting floods, the river and stream gauges are used to manage waste water treatment, license hydroelectric dams and monitor migration of critical fish populations such as the alewife on the Sebasticook.

On Thursday, the weather service said it would be ending forecast services for the Sebasticook River because stream flow observations gathered with the gauge are critical to river forecasts; and without the gauge in place, the information is impossible to gather.

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