Flood forecasting needs to be restored
Congress' political paralysis has rendered it incapable of determining national priorities, as demonstrated by the across-the-board budget-cutting known as sequestration. Lawmakers' inability to set priorities and appropriate accordingly is a flood of incompetence that could help unleash actual flooding in Northeast Pennsylvania.
The region has shown itself to be susceptible to major flooding throughout the Susquehanna and Delaware watersheds, as evidenced most recently in Bradford and Sullivan counties when Tropical Storm Lee caused major devastation.
Now, as if to put an exclamation point on the idiocy that is sequestration, the United States Geological Survey has announced that it will discontinue funding for major portions of its national flood monitoring system. Of 356 affected sites nationwide, the list includes 47 rain gauge stations in Northeast, Central and South-Central Pennsylvania, most of which help monitor the flood-prone Susquehanna River. Each station costs about $15,000 a year to maintain.
When other agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, have reduced costs according to the sequestration's across-the-board mandate, congressional critics have contended that doing so is a political publicity stunt designed to build public pressure for more spending.
The USGS, however, has decided to maintain other types of gauges in the system that measure stream flow, river flood stages and so on.
Yet it makes no sense, from a policy perspective, to diminish flood forecasting in any way because accurate forecasts help to save government money. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, just an hour of lead time can reduce flood damage by 10 percent.
The value of early warning played out last week in Michigan, where 1,700 people safely were evacuated in advance of flooding along the Grand River. Without data from gauges, said Mark Walton of the National Weather Service, "we would have basically been flying blind."
The longer the warning period for an impending flood, the more time local, state and federal governments have to plan a response, put resources where they will be needed, move as many people and as much property as possible out of harm's way and otherwise mitigate damage. Anything the federal government saves by diminished forecasting, it will lose on the recovery end.
Congress already has lost its credibility through sequestration. It should restore flood forecasting funding to help save lives and money.