One year later, flood forecasting funds still uncertain
Even in the aftermath of the record-breaking Tropical Storm Lee flood of Sept. 8 and 9, funding for the Susquehanna River's flood forecasting system is still unpredictable.
Each year the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives earmarked money for river monitoring technology, including the Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System. Now that earmarks are a thing of the past, the money has to be included in appropriations bills the Senate and House don't always agree on.
The lack of a stable funding source means there is a new fight for the money every year - and the possibility of budget cuts or other issues could take it away altogether.
"That's the state we find ourselves in. Year after year the gauges are in jeopardy without a dedicated funding source," Susquehanna River Basin Commission spokeswoman Susan Obleski said. "You'd think it was a no-brainer that there would be adequate funding for flood forecasting."
The Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System includes 62 stream and 73 rain gauges along the river from Cooperstown, N.Y., to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. It combines resources of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Geological Survey.
The National Weather Service uses data gathered by the system to issue flood forecasts and warnings. The system is also used by state agencies to determine drought conditions and by the SRBC to regulate water withdrawals from creeks and streams by large users like natural gas companies.
Proponents of regular federal funding, including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn. - who added his voice to the growing chorus Friday - cite the benefits of timely flood warnings.
In the aftermath of the Tropical Storm Lee flooding, local members of Congress toured the devastated areas throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania and saw firsthand the havoc the Susquehanna could wreak.
U.S. Rep Tom Marino, R-Lycoming Township, who is on the emergency preparedness subcommittee of the federal Department of Homeland Security committee, said in an email that the position "has helped me to understand the vital need for preserving and improving flood warning systems."
"The annual appropriations process simply does not allow for a more predictable funding stream for the flood forecasting system," he said.
The earlier communities can prepare for floods, the greater the chances of saving lives and property. The less flood damage, the less the government has to pay in recovery costs: "This is a system that is not only helping to save lives, but it returns $20 on every dollar invested," Obleski said.
Jim Campbell, director of the U.S. Geological Survey's Pennsylvania Water Science Center, said that as of this year, the flood forecast system cost $822,055, about 60 percent of which goes for manpower to maintain the gauges, check records to ensure they are accurate, and measure information such as river depth and velocity in real-time during floods and droughts. The portion of the system in Pennsylvania costs $552,125.
Campbell said individual gauges are funded through cost-sharing. He said the Wilkes-Barre gauge costs $18,760 per year. Federal sources account for $10,325, the state Department of Environmental Protection chips in $6,875 and the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority pays $1,560, he said.
But the entire system is important: the gauge in Wilkes-Barre alone does not help in a flood without information about what is happening upstream in New York, Obleski said.
Last year, the federal portion of the funding was removed as a result of the war on congressional earmarks. At first, DEP picked up the cost of the stream gauges, and USGS "did what we could," Campbell said.
Ultimately, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., ranking member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee, managed to get the $2 million into an appropriations bill, which passed. That ensured funding for 2012. But for fiscal year 2013, which starts in October, it's still uncertain.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, said in a statement that separate 2013 appropriations bills in the House and the Senate each contain funding, but the House version, which is more broadly written, allocates $6.2 million for the Advanced Hydrological Prediction Services program, while the Senate version "is aimed more directly at the Mid-Atlantic region." Barletta pledged his support for funding the program.
The Senate's bill includes $2 million for the river and stream gauge network, with an emphasis on the Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System, Obleski said. Since the House version does not contain a similar provision, the two bills need to be reconciled through a conference committee.
"Thankfully, members of the House and Senate who represent areas in the Susquehanna Basin have been able to work together to ensure adequate funding is provided to preserve the system and improve its effectiveness," Marino said. "As the appropriations process moves forward, I will strongly support the Senate provisions on flood forecasting and work to make sure those provisions are included in a final House-Senate funding agreement."
Obleski said the SRBC would like to see the flood forecasting system identified as a line item in the presidential budget, meaning it would automatically show up year after year.
"The ideal way to fund it, and the way we would love to have it happen, is if it goes into the president's budget," she said.