As fickle as nature's flood cycles
Congress is well aware of the costs associated with flooding. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and a host of local floods in between, have nearly bankrupted the national flood insurance program, beyond scores of billions of dollars in other federal recovery spending.
Lawmakers reacted by mandating new premiums that reflect actual risks, but repealed the mandate when it became clear that exponentially higher premiums would make it impossible for many homeowners to keep their properties.
One would think that the situation would put a premium on preventing flood damage in the first place, but lawmakers have not implemented long-term adequate funding for an inexpensive program that plays a huge role in preventing flood damage along the flood-prone Susquehanna River and other rivers nationwide.
For the Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System, the federal budget cycle has been as fickle as nature's flood cycles. The system's 60 stream gauges and 70 rain gauges provide early warning of impending flooding in New York and Pennsylvania, but the system is not always fully funded. Given that average flood damage in the Susquehanna watershed is $150 million a year, mitigating damage through early warning should be a high priority.
Yet the Susquehanna River Basin Commission said last year that the lack of reliable long-term funding for gauges is the single greatest threat to effective management of the system.
This year the Senate increased funding for the National Streamflow Information Program by $6 million, to $33.7 million. But according to the commission, fully funding the nationwide streamflow system would cost $112 million - that's $38 million less than the average flood damage in the Susquehanna watershed alone.
Sen. Bob Casey has called upon the administration to increase funding for the system next year, citing a study showing that each dollar spent on early warning saves $20 in damage.
Given the constant threat and proven cost of flooding, that increase should be an easy call.