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Eye on Boise: Two stream gauges escape budget ax

BOISE – It now looks like three stream flow gauges will be shut off May 1 in Idaho, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Idaho Water Science Center, down from the five originally expected to be shut down due to sequestration budget cuts.

“It’s still something of a fluid issue in terms of exactly how much the cut was going to be,” said Michael Lewis, the center’s director. He’d been anticipating a 7 to 8 percent cut in a federally funded program that supports 31 stream gauges statewide, but he just learned late Thursday that “we’re probably looking at a 5.2 percent cut.”

That means two gauges that had been targeted for closure won’t be: one on the Little Salmon River at Riggins and the other on the Little Lost River near Howe.

The Riggins gauge is a popular and heavily watched one. “It’s certainly critical for the recreational industry of whitewater rafting, kayaking, fishing,” Lewis said. Since the USGS posted a notice that the gauge could be shut down, “I’ve heard quite a bit from the public,” he said.

The gauge near Howe is the only gauge on that river. It’s considered critical for water rights administration and agricultural irrigation.

Still on the hit list: One in southeastern Idaho in the Snake River drainage at the Gray’s Lake Outlet; one on Lapwai Creek near Lapwai in north-central Idaho on the Nez Perce Reservation; and one on the South Fork of the Clearwater River near Elk City.

All play important roles in scientific monitoring and are used by various agencies for fisheries management, flood forecasting and more. Lewis said seven of the 31 gauges in the program have 100 years or more of continuous data. “From a scientific perspective, that is absolutely invaluable,” he said, reflecting stream flows through a wide array of climate and hydrologic conditions. The three targeted for shutdown have a “shorter period of record” of between 26 and 41 years.

By shutting down the three stream gauges, the USGS will save about $23,000 between May 1 and the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30. Each gauge requires eight to 10 site visits a year by technicians for maintenance and calibration; they also transmit data to the USGS that get posted on the agency’s website for public use.

Lewis said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the stream gauge shutdowns won’t be permanent. The program long has had strong bipartisan support in Congress, he noted. “I think once we get through the sequester, hopefully we’ll see the budget come back for those gauges.”

No more, but thanks

Overwhelming response to a call for donations to an inmate quilting project has left the Idaho Department of Correction out of storage space and unable to accept new donations of quilting material.

“Idaho’s quilters are generous and eager to share their passion for quilting,” said Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke. “We never imagined we’d get buried like this.” The prisons have received more than four pickup truck loads of quilting material, after a call for donations, especially batting. “We are truly grateful for all the help, but we just don’t have a place to store more material,” Reinke said.

The inmates make quilts for needy families or charities; many are made of old prison-issued jeans, uniforms and other recycled material.

‘Boise Hole’ filled

One of downtown Boise’s highest-profile corners sat empty for decades after the long-vacant, historic Eastman Building burned to the ground in 1987 on the eve of a planned restoration. In later years, proposal after proposal for grandiose towers on the site fell through. For many years, all that was left was a deep hole marked by abandoned spines of rebar.

The past year marked a dramatic turnaround for the site that long was nicknamed the “Boise Hole.” First, in September 2011, Zions Bank announced it was planning its new Idaho headquarters in an office tower that would be built at the site. Last July, more than 300 people gathered in the hole for a groundbreaking. Now, less than a year later, the new Eighth and Main Tower has risen to its full 18 stories – making it, just barely, the tallest building in Idaho. (The nearby U.S. Bank building is 19 stories, but the parapet of the new tower rises a few feet higher.)

The new tower is scheduled to open in January 2014, and so far it’s not only on schedule, on budget and free of serious mishaps, it’s already 81 percent leased, with all of its retail space taken.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, speaking at a ceremony amid the construction equipment on the 17th floor of the new tower, said, “Since this project began, we have been a city on the rise. … The hole is gone forever.”