- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 13, 2015

DENVER (AP) - As rain-swollen rivers swept down Colorado’s Front Range mountains and rushed to the prairie, at least three crucial water-level monitoring gauges were out of service - two in flood-prone Big Thompson Canyon.

Missing the live information on water levels, while it didn’t cause problems amid storms this past week, nevertheless raised concerns about the state’s ability to anticipate flooding and likely harm to roads, housing, farms and industrial facilities.

Local authorities said they rely on foothills water data when deciding whether to evacuate.

“All that water in the mountains goes downstream, and we in Weld County have five rivers flowing through,” county spokeswoman Jennifer Finch said, adding that Weld leaders plan to apply for a grant to install new early-warning gauges.

“The more we can use and maintain our own information, the better. The gauges are valuable,” Finch said. “We’d have a little more control. After the 2013 flood, there was an opportunity: What else can we do to gather information and prevent things from happening again?”

At least three nonfunctioning gauges, destroyed by the September 2013 floods and not replaced, belong to the Colorado Division of Water Resources. The state and U.S. Geological Survey run separate networks totaling more than 300 gauges statewide.

National Weather Service forecasters said knowing water depth and speed is crucial to minimize harm. Otherwise, counties must rely more on public works officials able to be out in trucks. Federal forecasters must rely more heavily on storm radar to anticipate flooding, meteorologist Kyle Fredin said.

“In situations like this, we’re watching this bulge of water flowing down the South Platte River. It moves fairly slowly, at the rate of 5 to 7 miles per hour,” Fredin said.

But in the foothills, flash flooding happens more quickly and early warning matters even more, he said. River gauges give an idea of how much water is coming out of a canyon, and that is essential for evacuations.

A National Weather Service database listed three gauges statewide as out of service on Monday morning after nearly a week of heavy rain and snow. Another four gauges were classified as producing old data.

Two of the out-of-service gauges were located west of Loveland along the Big Thompson River, which in 1976 flooded and killed 144 people.

One measured water at the mouth of the canyon. Farther up, along the North Fork of the Big Thompson near Drake, a second gauge was destroyed.

These two belonged to the state, said Bob Kimbrough, regional associate director of the U.S. Geological Survey. “They’ve been down since the 2013 flood,” Kimbrough said.

Colorado natural resources spokesman Todd Hartman confirmed three nonfunctioning state gauges, but these did not match up with those in the weather service database.

“All but two of the gauges damaged in the 2013 flood have been replaced, and one of those is not relied upon for flood readings,” Hartman said in a prepared statement.

One gauge near Platteville was damaged in recent storms but not destroyed, Hartman said, and state crews were working to fix it.

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Information from: The Denver Post, https://www.denverpost.com

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