1721 North Front Street • Harrisburg, PA • 17102-2391 •

February 3, 2011

CONTACT: Susan Obleski
Director of Communications
Office: (717) 238-0423, x316
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HARRISBURG, Pa. – Susquehanna River Basin Commission Executive Director Paul O. Swartz today issued the following commentary in response to congressional action that places the Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System in serious jeopardy. Stream gages, which are the backbone of flood forecasting, must be preserved not only for flood hazard mitigation but also to protect streams from water withdrawals by the natural gas industry in the Marcellus Shale and by other regulated water-dependent projects in the Susquehanna basin.

Commentary by
Paul O. Swartz, Executive Director, Susquehanna River Basin Commission

On January 5, 2011, I received news from Maryland’s U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski that Congress had blocked the Fiscal Year 2011 (FY-11) Omnibus Appropriations Bill. Consequently, none of the congressionally directed projects in the bill, including $2.4 million needed for the Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System (the System), will be funded in FY-11.

Senator Mikulski, who has been our key champion for flood forecast funding, said: “I am extremely disappointed. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I worked hard to provide funding for projects…that create jobs, meet a compelling human need, promote innovation, improve public safety or strengthen our infrastructure. It is unlikely that congressionally designated projects will be funded in the near future.”

Those words were sobering and a clear signal to us that this vitally important activity – one that has a proven track record of protecting public health and safety – is now in serious jeopardy.

The 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; for every dollar invested by the federal government, the System saves $20 through reduced flood damages and reduced payouts through the federal flood insurance program.

Of particular concern is the potential loss of data critical for providing timely and accurate flood forecasts. The System uses radar and a network of stream and rain gages to provide the data that are used to forecast river levels and issue more accurate early flood warnings.

With early flood warnings, businesses and residents living in flood-prone areas have time to secure their properties and get themselves to safer locations before flood waters strike. The System was established 25 years ago because the Susquehanna River Basin is one of the most flood-prone areas in the entire country. More than 80 percent of the basin’s 1,400 plus municipalities include areas that are flood-prone.

Loss of System funding also poses the risks of additional funding being discontinued by other System partners who currently provide support for stream gages. Those partners also rely on the gages for their water management activities. For example, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania relies on 13 of the jeopardized stream gages for its drought monitoring network.

Regrettably, despite the System’s irrefutable benefits, it is now in danger. 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. 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 Susquehanna River Basin Commission and its partners in the System are currently developing strategies to prevent the System from being shut down in FY-11. We are exploring all avenues so critical stream and rain gages will not be eliminated.

With the loss of direct congressional funding in FY-11 a foregone conclusion, the System’s future is uncertain. Like other federal agencies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which administers the System’s funding through its National Weather Service, is currently funded under a Continuing Resolution, which allows the agency to operate at last fiscal year’s funding level. However, the Continuing Resolution expires on March 4, 2011, and without knowing what Congress decides to do about a budget for the remainder of FY-11, funding for the System remains in question.

The Commission will be meeting with National Weather Service officials shortly to urge their support to provide funding to bridge the System into the next fiscal year. While funding for FY-12 is equally uncertain, we are prepared to work tirelessly with members of Congress to restore funding. But because of the current desire to eliminate all congressionally directed funding (earmarks), FY-12 represents yet another challenge for the System.

For FY-13, our strategy is to have funding for the System included in the President’s budget to avoid the need for a congressional add-on. That is exactly where funding for the System rightfully belongs -- in the President’s budget. Congress has carried the burden of funding the System for too long. It’s time for the Executive Branch to take the lead.

Beyond the System’s many flood forecasting benefits, the stream gages that are the backbone of the System are also relied on by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to protect streams from water withdrawals we regulate for natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale and other water-dependent projects. The stream gages, operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, provide flow data used by the Commission and its regulated water users to determine when they must stop withdrawing water to prevent impacts to aquatic species and other downstream water users during periods of low flows. As the demand for water continues to increase from the natural gas industry, as well as for power generation and other purposes, stream gages must be preserved not only for flood hazard mitigation purposes, but also to protect streams from water withdrawals.

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. 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.”

For more information on the Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System, visit the dedicated web site at

SRBC ( is the governing agency established under a 100-year compact signed on December 24, 1970 by the federal government and the states of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland to protect and wisely manage the water resources of the Susquehanna River Basin. The Susquehanna River starts in Cooperstown, N.Y., and flows 444 miles to the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Md.