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125 years of measuring the Rio Grande

EMBUDO – John Wesley Powell, the nineteenth century explorer and scientist whose work laid the foundation for the development of the West, knew from the beginning that managing the arid region’s water was crucial, and that was impossible without measuring it.

The result of Powell’s vision was the nation’s first stream gauging station, built by a team of U.S. Geological Survey scientists at Embudo on the west bank of Rio Grande north of EspaƱola. The first measurement was simple, according to Mark Gunn, Deputy Director of the USGS New Mexico Water Science Center. The team surveyed the channel’s cross section in December 1888, then built a simple pontoon boat and measured how fast it floated down the Rio Grande. A little arithmetic yielded the first ever measurement of the flow of an American river. “It’s awe-inspiring,” Gunn said this afternoon as he stood at the same spot where those measurements were taken. “Those guys were really smart.”

Gunn and a host of dignitaries gathered today on the same spot to commemorate the gauge’s 125th anniversary, with cake and demonstrations of 21st century acoustic doppler measurements of stream flow measurements. Back in Powell’s day, stream flow measurements were taken by hand twice a day. Today, they’re taken in real time and beamed up to a satellite that ships the data to USGS computers. Now, if you have a computer, you can check the flow at Embudo in real time (568 cubic feet per second as Gunn and I were talking early this afternoon).

I’ll have more on the history and today’s celebration in the newspaper next week.


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