Skip Navigation 
NOAA logo - Click to go to the NOAA homepage National Weather Service Forecast Office   NWS logo - Click to go to the NWS homepage
Go to NWS State College, PA Home

Local forecast by
"City, ST" or zip code
How can a River Stage be Negative?

How can a River Stage be negative?

A river's stage at a point (a gauge reading) is not an absolute measure of the depth of the water in the channel, rather it is a depth with respect to an historical Datum level.

That gauge zero level is chosen considering many factors, like the USGS references (or benchmarks) that are near to the gauge site, or an historical level that may have been used for a hundred years or more. These gauge zero levels are not changed very often.

Silt may deposit in the river channel over time (filling the channel up), or the channel bottom may be scoured out to a deeper level by strong currents.

Still, the gauge zero datum levels are not changed to keep continuity.

For example, most of the gauges in the Susquehanna Basin experienced their record Flooding during Agnes in 1972. If the gauge zero level was changed on a whim, all the historical data for the gauge site could be rendered useless. There is a collaboration between many goverment agencies in order to settle on a gauge zero, and which Datum (way of mapping the earth) will be used as a basis.

In summary, when a river gauge reads zero or in the negative numbers - it does not mean that the river has gone totally dry or is running below ground. It means that the gauge is reading at or below the agreed-upon zero level.

Not many sites in the region actually go below zero (Renovo and Williamsport are two examples that do). When they do go below zero, it is usually a sign of a prolonged dry spell.

In contrast, a few river gauges will not read below a certain level (which may be above it's respective gauge zero). This bottom limit/reading of these gauges is usually due to the position of the gauge in or along the river. The Bloomsburg gauge is one of those sites - it will not read below 1.36 feet.

Some river or dam/pool water level gauges will be referred to using feet (or meters) above mean sea level (MSL). Examples of this situation are the large reservoirs in the Rockies and Western U.S. where the agencies (or power companies) have installed gauges to monitor water flows and levels.

Local Climate, Water & Weather Topics:
Forecasts, Current Hazards, Current Conditions, Water Resources, Radar, Satellite, Climate,
Weather Safety, Wireless/PDAs, Feature Articles,

US Dept of Commerce
NOAA National Weather Service
Central Pennsylvania Weather Forecast Office
328 Innovation Blvd, Suite 330
State College, Pennsylvania 16803
Page Author: 
Page Last Modified: 07 September 2010 14:46:05 UTC
Privacy Policy
About Our Organization
Career Opportunities