September 29, 2008

Budget Cuts Could Lead To Flood Of Problems

By PJ Reilly

According to Stephen Bailey's extensive records, there has never been a death in Marietta caused by a flood.

And he wants to keep it that way.

But Bailey, who serves as the borough's emergency services coordinator and unofficial flood historian, wondered Sunday how effective flood warnings will be for Marietta in the future if the U.S. Geological Survey is forced to shut down gauges that monitor the Susquehanna River's flow in Pennsylvania.

"If they shut that down, we're going to be going back to prehistoric times," Bailey said. "This would actually eliminate my ability to provide advance warning."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently notified USGS about budget cuts proposed by the White House.

USGS officials said that unless sufficient funding is found by Wednesday, up to 14 stream gauges and 14 rain gauges - which each cost about $12,000 per year to maintain - in the Susquehanna River basin will be turned off.

Bob Hainly, assistant director of USGS Pennsylvania Water Science Center, said those gauges give out real-time river flow and rainfall information via satellite.

And National Weather Service officials say they use that information to track and predict flooding along the river in Pennsylvania.

"We're basically going to lose the ability, depending on which gauges are cut, to accurately know what's in the river at any given time," Peter Jung, senior service hydrologist for the weather service at State College, told The Patriot-News last week.

In Lancaster County, USGS monitors two stream-flow gauges on the Conestoga River, one on Pequea Creek and one on the Susquehanna River at Marietta. It also monitors a rain gauge near Ephrata.

USGS officials could not be reached for comment Sunday night, but, according to published reports, the local gauges are not on the list of devices to be shut down.

But it's the gauges upriver from Lancaster County that provide the advance warning of flooding to communities here, Bailey said.

"They take the flow information and the rainfall up north; then they predict what we can expect down here," he said.

When the forecast calls for the river to rise above Marietta's flood stage - 49 feet - Bailey notifies the mayor, borough council members and the fire department that trouble is on the way.

"Without the information from the gauges, there's no way I can say what's going to happen," he said.

Thanks to the river gauges, residents along Front Street in Marietta - the borough's most flood-prone area - had more than 24 hours' notice that the river was expected to crest near 56 feet after heavy rainstorms drenched northern Pennsylvania in September 2004.

Most residents had moved themselves and their belongings out of harm's way by the time the Susquehanna began spilling into their basements and ground floors.

Columbia Mayor Leo Lutz said Sunday night he plans to contact Lancaster County's state and federal lawmakers today to urge them to keep the Susquehanna's flood-warning system intact.

"We monitor those gauges closely during big storms," he said. "We can look at the different spots on the river and figure out what the impact is going to be here in Columbia."

While he acknowledged his borough is not as flood-prone as other areas, such as Marietta and Washington Boro, Lutz said many Columbia residents have cabins on the islands in the Susquehanna just south of the borough.

"If we see the river is going to hit a certain point, we know those islands are going under water," he said. "If the people who have houses out there know a flood's coming ahead of time, they can get out there and secure things."

Without the system of gauges in the Susquehanna River basin, Lutz fears his town will have to monitor the water level the way he did when he was a kid.

"We used to put sticks in the ground to see how high the river got," he said. "We're going back to the Stone Age if they start pulling gauges that could provide advance warning."

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