Fed. budget woes threaten Susq. River forecasts
The agency that manages the water resources in the Susquehanna River is warning that federal budget cuts threaten funding for the Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System.
Officials at the Susquehanna River Basin Commission say loss of system funding would cut off data used to forecast flooding along the river, and to manage the withdrawal of water by regulated water users. Those users include Marcellus shale gas development projects and, in times of drought, the Baltimore water system, which serves the city and surrounding suburbs.
"In a time of tight budgets and with the country determined to get its fiscal house in order, everyone understands the need to curb spending," said the commission's executive director, Paul Swartz. "But eliminating funding for this proven system risks loss of life and property, and leaves Susquehanna basin residents, communities and businesses vulnerable. Is that a prudent financial decision?"
The $2.4 million needed to keep the system of stream and river gauges operating has been provided until now by "congressionally directed funding," or "earmarks." But the Senate has passed a two-year moratorium on the practice.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, has been a key supporter of the funding on the Appropriations Committee, said she was "disappointed" in the situation. But she added, "it is unlikely that congressionally designated projects will be funded in the near future."
In a release, Swartz said the forecast and warning system "provides the National Weather Service the critically important data necessary to issue flood warnings. The system is extremely cost-effective, providing a 20-to-1 benefit-cost ratio."
Funding for the system this year is coming through the "continuing resolutions" that Congress has passed in lieu of a FY 2011 budget. The current resolution expires on Mar. 4. Without a new earmark for the system, it would not be funded in FY 2012, either.
River basin commission officials said they intend to work to secure some sort of "bridge" funding to keep the system working through September 2012. They also hope to have the funding included in the President's budget for FY-2013. "That is exactly where funding for the system belongs ... Congress has carried the burden of funding the system for too long," Swartz said.
"It is not a question of whether flooding will again occur in the Susquehanna River Basin, but rather when it will occur, and how severe it will be," he said. "I pray it will not take the devastation of another flood event for us to once again learn the wisdom of the adage that 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.'"
The warning system was established 25 years ago to protect the 1,100-or-so flood-prone communities in the basin, which stretches 444 miles from upstate New York, through Central Pennsylvania to Maryland. Here's more on how the river forecast system works.
(SUN PHOTOS: Port Deposit (top) and Conowingo Dam, 2004; Karl Merton Ferron)