Monitoring Allegheny River Water Levels

With the growth of outdoor recreation in our area, and paddling in particular, people are starting to explore our local creeks and rivers more and more. We've seen an enormous spike in calls, emails and facebook messages asking what water levels (on various local creeks and rivers) are "safe" and at what point is it too low. We love that we've become the local resource for information, and are always happy to answer questions folks may have. But as a small business helping thousands of people get outside each summer it can be hard to get every message returned right away. It's our hope that this post will answer those questions, and become a resource you can tuck away and refer back to when needed. 

Please keep in mind, just checking gauges (we're about to talk about) does not always ensure a safe environment. The information we're about to jump into is best used as a guide for your initial thought of "what's the river look like?" Although rare, we've seen times where the outflow from Kinzua Dam is low enough, but flooded creeks bring high waters and debris to create an unsafe situation. You should always scout your trip or reach out to local resources (like us!) prior to going if it looks unsafe, especially if you know there's been a heavy rainfall recently. 

The Allegheny River water discharge (outflow) at Kinzua Dam is calculated and set by the US Army Corps of Engineers Hydrology Department in Pittsburgh. There are three websites we use to keep an eye on Allegheny River water levels, and to keep up-to-date on what their planned releases will be. Those websites are: USGS National Water Information System, US Army Corps of Engineers Daily Reservoir Report and Forecast, and NOAA Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service. If you're a river rat like us, constantly checking levels, you may want to bookmark each of these pages for quick reference. It's also worth noting, we have personal use rain gauges set up at different locations in Starbrick, Irvine and West Hickory that better help us understand locally how much rainfall these different areas have seen.

USGS - Hourly Levels

So lets jump into the USGS site first. This is by far my go-to site. It gives me real-time water conditions for the Allegheny River on an hourly basis.

Scrolling down to the first graph, you'll find water temperature (see image below, left). Not such a concern if you're strictly a summer paddler, but if you're an early spring or late fall paddler, this'll come in handy. 

Above: Water temperature gage.

Speaking in terms of water temperature, Kinzua Dam has two sets of gates, upper and lower. The upper set has two gates where water is released, and the lower set has six gates. The upper gates are used during normal summer operations. The lower gates are used during large outflow operations, typically in early spring when snow melts and spring rain begins; and also in fall when they release large amounts of water to reach winter pool. When the Corps opens up the lower gates, it's pulling water off the bottom of the reservoir, which is much colder than that on top. Every spring, if you're watching this gauge like a hawk, you'll see a spike in water temperature, which is usually a sure indicator that they've switched from the lower to upper gates to release water. (For all you spring paddlers, remember the rule of thumb for hypothermia is that water temperature + air temperature should equal 120 degrees.)

Above: Gage height and Discharge, cubic feet per second.

As you continue to scroll, the next two graphs you'll see are "Gage Height" and "Discharge" (see images above, right). These two graphs work hand in hand, and more or less spell out the same thing. "Gage height" refers to a gauge at the base of the tailwaters below Kinzua Dam within the restricted area of the river. It shows how high the water level has risen/fallen in feet according to the outflow. For example, the graph below shows that on July 7th the gauge rose to roughly 10.3' when the discharge rate from Kinzua Dam reached 7,000 cfs. 

The "Discharge" graph tells you the current outflow from Kinzua Dam. Discharge is measured in cubic feet per second (cfs). To put that in perspective, a cubic foot is about the size of a basketball. So this day's outflow is 4,460 basketballs coming out of Kinzua Dam every second. 

So what do all these numbers mean in reference to river conditions? Great question, and one we get asked on a daily basis. In our experience, at 2,000 cfs you still need to read the river a bit in order to not get stuck on a rock here and there; 3,000 cfs is about perfect; and 4,500 cfs is a, "kick back, relax and just use your paddle to steer" type of float. We close our rental facility at 5,000 cfs. We came up with this number ten years ago when we spoke with local folks at the US Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Boat Commission, and my uncle who's lived along the Allegheny for 60 years. We understand that the river can still be safely paddled above 5,000 cfs, but as a rental business we feel it's a "better safe than sorry" scenario when you're talking about different skill levels and abilities of paddlers.

Looking at the graph above (bottom, right), the last arrow on the right shows a clickable "Subscribe to WaterAlert" text. This has proven a helpful feature for us, and I encourage anyone that's on the Allegheny River regularly to use it. Clicking the link will take you to a subscription form where you can choose either text or email automatic alerts be sent to you (see image, right). We use 4,000 cfs as our real-time value because we close our rental facility at 5,000 cfs. The WaterAlert function can be used for water temperature, gage height, discharge or precipitation alerts. 

The last graph on the USGS site is for precipitation. Certainly helpful in knowing when problems may start to arise.

USACE Daily Reservoir Report & Forecast

The second site we use for checking levels is USACE Daily Reservoir Report & Forecast. This site is a great tool if you're planning an extended trip, or checking in on river conditions for an upcoming day trip. Please remember this is only a forecast, and one strong storm that dumps a couple inches of rain can change it without notice. As the USACE put it at the bottom of the page: "This forecast represents our best estimate of reservoir project pool elevations and releases for the next three days. In general, it assumes no significant rainfall during the forecast period. Final decisions on all operations (changes in project release) are made on the day of the operation. Future operations shown on this forecast are as expected, but not promised."

Looking at the image below, you see the Allegheny's "Minimum Pool" is 1239.4.; "Winter Max Pool" is 1306.5; and "Summer Max Pool" is 1364.5. The pool usually hovers around 1327.5-1328.5 through the summer. You'll normally see the outflow (discharge) increase when the forecast shows the pool elevation go above 1328.5. (In simple terms - when it rains a lot, the water in the lake rises, so they release more water from Kinzua Dam.) It's likely it'll increase above 5,000 cfs (the point when we shut down rental operations) if summer pool goes over 1329.5. Remember when we mentioned a late fall release that normally brings high water? This explains why that happens - they bring the pool down nearly 21' to reach a winter pool of 1306.5. 

So looking at the three-day forecast above, the pool elevation is forecast to drop from 1329.1 to 1328.7 with an outflow of 4,500cfs (basketballs per second) from the 15th to the 17th. As long as no major rain activity happens between now and then, the outflow will be dropping to 3,000cfs by Friday.

One final note about this site. If you bookmark it for quick reference, always remember to hit "refresh" when you bring it up. "Most web browsers cache pages and are not aware that any given page is updated on a regular basis.  If the reports do not seem to be updating, please use your browser's "reload" function before deciding that the problem is at the server end." This site is updated by noon every day.

Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service

The last site we use is the Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service.

Now we're really getting into it. This site was recommended by the Corps, and has a bunch of cool features for watching water levels. I'll be honest, I've only dabbled in certain parts of this site, and am excited for peak season to slow down so I can learn more. In talking with the folks in Hydrology at the Corps, the two important points to keep an eye on are Salamanca and Kinzua Creek above Guffey (see image below, left).

When you hover over Salamanca, another map will appear to the right (see image above, right). This map shows the forecast stage in feet with a purple line. Kinzua Creek at Guffey doesn't show a forecast, but does show observed levels. Both of these points are used in the USACE three-day forecast mentioned above. If you see them rising, expect the outflow to increase on the three-day forecast.

Phew, that was a lot of information in one spot! We're excited so many people have asked questions about water levels. It means our paddling community wants to learn more in order to have a safe experience, and we're all for that. If you found it useful, please pass it along!