Water levels are everything when it comes to paddling and we spend a lot of time watching gauges as we plan our trips throughout the season to make sure we’re hitting a given creek or river at the right time. Here’s a little guide to help you navigate the gauges we use for Wisconsin water.
Levels can drastically affect the kind of day you’ll spend on the water. The “right level” is more of a personal preference – those who prefer low water usually don’t mind walking and those who like high water are usually looking for an increase in Class waves and drops. What we aim to recommend is the ideal water level for any given stream.
In our detailed trip reports we mention whether the water was low, high or just right, at the time we paddled it (and lately, you’ll even find a (new) field called “Recommended Levels”). This information is based on what we have personally experienced without speculating. The more exposure we have to a certain stream at various levels, the more comprehensive our recommendation becomes. Additionally, we cross-reference other paddling websites and guidebooks for recommended levels.
There are two basic gauges we know about and refer to: USGS and NOAA. The USGS is better because it’s more user-friendly and has a vast backlog of many years. The NOAA is helpful when there is no USGS gauge on a certain stream; also, it records levels according to flood stage, which correlates well to how high or low a given stream is. As often as you might check the forecast before heading out to paddle, we strongly recommend consulting water levels, whenever possible.
How the (Seemingly Confusing) USGS Site Works:
It is confusing at first glance. In fact, it takes a while to figure it out. For some streams you rarely need to worry about levels because they always have enough water to paddle. Generally speaking, larger rivers like the Wisconsin and Rock are guaranteed to have enough but levels will drastically affect the experience. Most of the time though you’ll want to consult a gauge before heading out.
1. First, head to this map.
2. You’ll see the state of Wisconsin with lots of polka dots scattered about. Some dots will be red (meaning low), some will be green (meaning normal), some blue (higher than normal) and others black (too high). See below for what these colored dots indicate.
For now, click on the dot for the gauge on the river in question. Let’s use the Illinois Fox River in Waukesha (gauge #05543830). A small pop-up window will open up. Click on the actual gauge number (05543830), which will open up a new page (or tab, depending on your browser) with a table whose heading is “Available Data.” Click on (or use the dropdown to access) “Current/Historical Observations” link under “Available Data.” This in turn will open a new page, this time with some more meaningful information (such as gauge location and drainage area).
3. Now, scroll down til you see some graphs that look like this:
There should always be two graphs minimum (although there are exceptions). One for cubic feet per second (cfs) flow, the other for height of the water at the gauge (some gauges also give you recent rain amounts, some even the temperature of the water). These are the two critical data sets, the cfs in particular. The rule of thumb here is the higher the number of cfs, the faster the water – and faster water means more volume (which also means more height). The cfs is the x-axis of the graph; the y-axis shows the past week.
OK, so you’ll see a squiggly blue line that may stay steady, or rise and fall, as well as a horizontal line of yellow triangles. The blue line indicates the rate of cfs for the past seven days (including today). If there’s been heavy rain out of nowhere, you’ll see the blue line rise abruptly. The yellow triangles denote the historical average for that calendar day going back several decades. So what you see on the graph is the current level compared to the historical average of what it’s been on that date going back decades. In other words, at first glance all you’re seeing is if the river is higher or lower than what it has been in the past for the time you’re looking at it.
Red and Black dots, Yellow Triangles, etc.:
If you take away anything from this explanation, let it be this: these gauge readings mean next to nothing if you don’t think about the big picture. And those colored dots? Same thing. You might see the dot as green or even blue, or see that the blue line is above the yellow triangles and conclude, “Great! We’re good to go. Hunny, let’s load up the car!” But… not so fast.
If a dot is green or blue it just means it’s as good or even higher than its historical average for that day. But that doesn’t mean the water is necessarily high enough to paddle without scraping. The colored dots need to be put in context; they’re not absolute litmus tests meaning “yes, it’s good!” or “no, it’s low!” The dots and the yellow triangles are relative. What’s low in April will usually still be higher than what’s high in August. The indicators reflect these seasonal fluctuations.
What’s critical is to have a real-time cfs reading, simply because it’s a hard and fast number that relates to the minimum level at which a river can/should be run, as well as a maximum level past which it’s foolishly dangerous/deadly to run. Every river is different; 200 cfs for one stream will be a wild ride, while another it would be 2000 cfs. Whenever we can, we’ll provide what we believe to be desired cfs levels with a certain range of high and low relative of that. Some paddling guidebooks provide an ideal cfs level (alas, Mike Svob’s books don’t). To figure this out for yourself, you’ll need one part research, one part personal experience and the sum of grace between the two.
How to Check Past Levels:
Go back to Step 2 above. Click on the “Current/Historical Observations” link under “Data Type.” After the new page opens, scroll down to the wide rectangular table with headers that read “Available Parameters” and whatnot. There are two boxes that read “Begin Date” and “End Date,” respectively. Plug in the date(s) you want and then click “Go.” The spidery algorithms will compute and spit out the corresponding data. It’s that simple.
The neat feature to this is you can set it to search an individual day, week, whole month, season, or year, which you can then correlate on your own from weather cycles and whatnot. What’s also interesting is setting the time parameters from April to October to see the rollercoaster fluctuations of high and low water events.
Creeks and Rivers Without Gauges:
Not all rivers have gauges. In fact, most don’t and each time Congress decides to further defund the Department of the Interior (of which the United States Geological Survey (USGS) is a bureau) more gauges fall by the wayside and become defunct. (See? Your tax dollars do go to good work! Sometimes…)
But you don’t always need a gauge, it just depends on the stream in question. For instance, Neenah Creek near Portage and the Pine River in Richland Center don’t have gauges, but they almost always have enough water to paddle comfortably (that said, it still never hurts to call a local outfitter about current conditions, where applicable).
Sometimes you need to know before you go, even if there’s no gauge or outfitter to call ahead of time. Whenever we can, we provide correlation gauges. When a stream you want to paddle has no gauge but is geographically close to and has a similarly sized watershed area as a stream that does have a gauge, then you can often reasonably correlate one with the other. There are exceptions, of course but this usually is better than guessing. If nothing else, a nearby gauge will indicate whether there has been recent rain.
The key thing to bear in mind with gauges, actual or correlated, is to think about where the gauge is actually located and where that is in proximity to where you want to paddle. For example, let’s say I want to paddle the Illinois Fox River from Mitchell Park in Brookfield down to Frame Park in Waukesha. Now, there’s only one gauge on this river, and it’s downstream of downtown. The measured flow there doesn’t tell you anything specific about what’s upstream. It’s better than nothing, sure, but its proximity needs to be taken into consideration. On the other hand, if you’re paddling downstream from a gauge, it’s usually a safer bet that if the level is good upstream, you’ll be fine for your trip – especially if it’s a larger watershed area in the event of rain, since all that drainage works its way downstream eventually.
The USGS has a really handy feature that allows you to set up email and text alerts when water levels reach your specific parameters. There’s many reasons you may want to receive alerts but for paddlers, this is an ideal way to watch “thirsty” streams.
From USGS: “WaterAlert was developed to better inform water professionals, recreationalists, and the general public of the latest hydrologic conditions utilizing USGS real-time data and “active” data dissemination techniques with emails and text messaging. It can be used for floods, droughts, general water monitoring, and recreational purposes.”
Simply find the stream you want to follow and look for the “Subscribe to WaterAlert” link located under the map of whichever information you’d like to be notified of (usually CFS). (Link indication in blue below). Then set up your parameters and frequency of alerts.
For example, say I’m watching the the Big Bureau creek gauge and I want to know when it hits the minimum recommended level of 350cfs, simply plug in those numbers, choose how you want to be notified, how often, then sit back and wait to be notified without checking back everyday.
We spend a lot of time watching water levels, but this feature makes it easier to track streams simply by feeding us the info automatically. What’s great is that we have dozens of water-dependent trails that we can now follow passively because of this handy little automated feature that saves us a whole lot of time.
“Gauge” vs. “Gage”:
Both spellings seem to be used interchangeably (if there is an strong argument for one over the other, we’re all ears).