Funding for flood forecasts trimmed

Group asks that Congress restore money allotted for Susquehanna program

Harford County

December 14, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

A multistate commission that oversees water management for the Susquehanna River is calling on Congress to restore funding for a flood forecasting system that was cut unexpectedly from the House of Representatives' omnibus appropriations bill.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission was told late last month that a $1.3 million line-item appropriation for the program had been eliminated. The money is needed to update aging gauges and other equipment used in its Susquehanna Flood Forecasting and Warning System.

Executive Director Paul Swartz called the cut "baffling and disheartening."

"It was quite unexpected for us to hear this action was taken ... to zero it out," Swartz said. "Early warnings give people and businesses the time they need to secure their property and get themselves out of harm's way."

The program is to be funded instead through the National Weather Service's $6.1 million Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service program, said John Potts of the weather service budget office -- although the organization did not receive any additional funding to cover the change.

The commission adopted a resolution Thursday at its bimonthly meeting, held at Cecil Community College, calling on theNational Weather Service to fully fund the $1.3 million Susquehanna flood forecasting system's fiscal year 2004 budget, as directed in the House Consolidated Appropriations Act, and asks the federal government to restore the line-item appropriation in fiscal year 2005.

While the Susquehanna program has always fallen under the weather service budget, the money was a separately funded item in years past, Potts said.

"That's going to be the balancing act that we have to work on," Potts said.

"It does create problems, in that [the Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service] is a multiyear program we have under way with the intention of deploying better hydrologic forecasting capabilities nationwide," Potts said.

He said he could not say specifically how much of the $1.3 million "we can commit on moving forward," but upkeep of stream gauges and some other equipment would have to be maintained.

Better hydrologic data, which through computer modeling can now be projected months rather than days or weeks in advance, has a significant economic impact, Potts said, in helping officials plan for flooding. From allocating sandbags to planning evacuations, the information, which is broken down with probabilities of severity, "gives the decision-maker a lot more information," Potts said.

The Susquehanna forecasting system prevents $20 of damage for every dollar invested in the program, said Andrew Dehoff, a Susquehanna River Basin Commission engineer. Congress has invested $22 million in the program since it began, he said.

The Susquehanna basin is home to about 13 percent of the country's annual flood damage and is one of the most flood-prone areas in the nation, he said. Steep terrain and increased development along the more than 400-mile-long river, which flows from Cooperstown, N.Y., to Havre de Grace, where it meets the Chesapeake Bay, only stands to increase flood hazards, he said.

The forecasting program was started in 1985 along the river and includes radar, stream and rain gauges and data transmitters used to monitor water levels -- and warn communities downstream.

Port Deposit, a town of about 700 that hugs the eastern shore of the river below Conowingo Dam, depends on the forecasting system, said Mayor Rob Flayhart.

He said the town offices have ready access to river flow information on the Internet. He said that when he moved to Port Deposit several years ago, one of the first things he received was a map developed through the program for residents, showing where flooding occurs as Conowingo opens its gates. It fits nicely on the refrigerator, he said.

"It creates a level of comfort for us," he said. "Without it in place, it would just be flat-out devastating to the town."

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