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Gages on Madison River offer insight for many

Faith Moldan, The Madisonian

“We all live downstream,” is a phrase Sunni Heikes-Knapton said is used quite frequently in her office.

As the Madison Watershed Coordinator with the Madison Conservation District, she knows how very true that statement is and how important good knowledge about the Madison River is to a large number of people who live, work and play in Madison County.

Six gages registered with the United States Geological Survey monitor the water temperature, streamflow and water height of the Madison River. They stretch from West Yellowstone to McAllister. Heikes-Knapton said the gage near the Varney Bridge near Ennis is an important one. At that location, the river changes from one main channel to a braided one. It’s a pivotal transition point.

“Local fly fishing guides use it a lot,” Heikes-Knapton said. “The response has been phenomenal. The information is spread far.”

Water temperature readings allow guides to know where hatches might be and streamflow readings help them guide people through the river safely. A location where they were able to cross the day or week before may not be safe to use anymore. PPL uses the readings, which are up-to-date within one hour, to manage the outflow. Recreationists often take advantage of this tool as well. Readings are available March through October.

Richard Lessner, the Madison River Foundation Executive Director, said it is important to have more data than not enough.

“Angling is a key aspect to the county’s economy,” Lessner said.

Budget cuts shut down the Varney Bridge gage after 1970. It became operational again in March 2011 with the help of local supporters and donors. Those supporters include the Madison River Foundation, USGS, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, DNRC and PPL.

Lessner said the time that the gage near Varney Bridge was not operational left people with a very incomplete picture of streamflow on the Madison.

“The entire upper Madison was without a gage,” Lessner said. “There is a significant difference in flows between the upper and lower portions. It is important to have a gage at the midpoint of the valley.”

Heikes-Knapton said the biggest value of the gages is the day-to-day readings and usage. She added that the information is also obviously important in times of extremes either way, such as 2011’s phenomenal water year. Water height readings were the second highest ever on the Madison. At times like that, she reminds people that the dams along the river mitigate drought and flood conditions.

Heikes-Knapton said the Kirby Place gage shows how much water the river gains as it comes downstream and that the West Fork is a big tributary that helps regulate temperatures.

“A lot of communities across the state depend on gages like this,” Heikes-Knapton said.

Four gages slated to be shut down this year remained operational thanks in part to some local, private support. Heikes-Knapton said that because of the diverse supporters of the Varney Bridge gage, it is often used as an example for other communities.

Gage readings are available online at People can also have alerts sent to their phones when the river breaks certain set thresholds.

“We need to hear from the public to know if it’s something that’s still valuable,” Heikes-Knapton said. “You need to think of what it would be like if we didn’t have the gages.”

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