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River towns seek better warnings

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) announced she is committed to securing $2 million for the improvement of the Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System.


"This can be a very tame river and this can be a very ferocious river."

—Paul Swartz

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced Friday that she is committed to securing $2 million in funding for the improvement of the Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System.

At a meeting with representatives from the Susquehanna River community Port Deposit, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC), and the Conowingo Dam, Mikulski learned about and discussed the importance of the warning system in the lives of residents throughout the river basin.

“We have 1,400 communities in the basin and 80% of them are in flood prone areas,” said Paul Swartz, executive director of the SRBC. Swartz added that the region experiences a major flood about every 20 years, with three significant floods in the lower basin in the past 18 months.

The Susquehanna River Basin spans more than 27,000 square miles across three states: New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Swartz said that on average each year, the basin is home to 13% of the nation’s flood damage. The average yearly damage dollar amount is $150 million, he added.

The Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System (SFFWS) is a series of stream and rain gauges along with data transmitting equipment that alert weather officials, municipalities and the owners of the dams along the Susquehanna River to the increasing flow of water. Those officials in turn issue warnings to riverside communities.

The system has been in place for 20 years and now many of its crucial instruments are outdated and deteriorating. “(The instruments) do a good job, but they’re not sufficient to safeguard citizens and the businesses of the basin from flooding,” said Swartz.

“This can be a very tame river and this can be a very ferocious river. The bottom line is, these instruments don’t do enough to protect citizens. The forecasts are only as good as the data that comes in to us.”

Mikulski echoed Swartz's sentiments and voiced her concern over the crucial but aging gauges and data transmitters. “(The gauges) are like a technological national guard,” she said.

A senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mikulski said she champions the funding because she sees it as a line item crucial to the many communities in the river basin.

She added that with the innovative technology available today, new sensors and transmitters could greatly improve warning times for the public. “As long as we can watch and warn – and the better the watch and warn – then we can save lives.”

Saving lives is not the only reason for improving the SFFWS, several speakers at the meeting noted. The improvements can also save significant money. The SRBC estimates that for every dollar spent on flood forecasting and warning improvements, there is $20 in savings in property damage.

For those living in the many riverside communities, the warning system is an invaluable part of their lives.

“This issue’s been here for a long time,” said Kerry Abrams, deputy mayor of Port Deposit. “We do need a better functioning warning system. The sooner we get a warning that flooding is going to happen, then we can take more precautions.”

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