The four-sentence log in the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office police blotter read like the premise for a pulp spy novel. What really happened to electronic recording devices operated by the federal government in Half Moon Bay?
The Sheriff's Office log says: 3 a.m., May 21, an unknown person entered the U.S. Geological Survey data facility by forcing entry. The suspect located and destroyed three electronic recording devices. Total damage was estimated at $15,000. No items were stolen.
Was the vandal a foreign agent intent on sabotage? Could it be someone trying to steal government secrets? What is a USGS data facility anyway, and who knew they were hidden on the Coastside?
Turns out they are no secret — and the vandalism was likely not the result of sabotage. The “data facility” is one of more than 10,000 stream gages (more on the purposeful misspelling in a moment) that together provide near-real time data on water flow throughout the country. The Half Moon Bay gage is monitored by the USGS California Water Science Center, which maintains 500 stream gages across the state.
Data from the expansive network of gages reach USGS computers within an hour and are accessible by anyone. First-responders, water managers, transportation agencies, university researchers and consulting firms often access the data to monitor aquatic habitats, the navigability of the stream and to forecast droughts, to name just a few of the uses.
One of the most urgent uses for such gages nationwide is to monitor potential floodwaters, though that isn’t the primary use of the gage in Half Moon Bay. Automatic alerts are transmitted when water levels reach dangerous heights, said USGS spokesman Paul Laustsen.
He said the May 21 incident along Pilarcitos Creek was just the most recent vandalism of the Half Moon Bay gage. The vandalism only stopped the flow of data for two days; the gage has since been replaced. He said equipment vandalism is a big problem for the agency all across the country.
“This one was a first for me,” said Anthony Guerriero, a Santa Cruz field office chief for the USGS. “They maliciously bent the antenna, took the wires and the circuit boards, but left the batteries.
“Of course, it was a Friday before a holiday weekend and I had to rebuild a gage from the ground up,” Guerriero said.
This particular gage is near the pedestrian bridge just to the south of Strawflower Village. Guerriero says it's unusual in that it is at the bottom of a watershed and is used by the Resource Conservation District to monitor water flow for fish habitat rather than flood potential.
The gage is located near a sprawling homeless encampment along the creek.
It will be harder to damage next time. Guerriero said the data recorders are now housed in a steel box that resides within a larger 8-by-8-foot steel container, and the door has been reinforced.
Why is there no “u” in gage? Blame Frederick H. Newell. He was a graduate student in 1888 when he was tapped to organize the agency’s first irrigation survey with an eye toward building new dams and canals in the western states. He “reasoned that ‘gage’ was the proper Saxon spelling before the Norman influence added the ‘u’,” according to the USGS website. The agency continues the spelling to this day.
If the vandalism has a silver lining, it may be this story.
“The more people who know about the science we do, the better,” Guerriero said.