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System of river gauges imperiled

Officials will have to fall back on low-tech if Congress kills $2.4M for real-time system.

This river gauge next to the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Wilkes-Barre is one of several used to measure river levels and crests.

Aimee dilger/the times leader

WILKES-BARRE – Luzerne County officials said they will be forced to rely on pencils, mathematics and guesses if Congress eliminates $2.4 million for the Susquehanna River Flood Forecast and Warning System.

River and stream gauges along the river and its tributaries may be phased out if continued funding is not included in the federal 2011 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, according to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.

Gauges provide real-time information used to forecast river and stream depths and provide advance notice of impending floods.

Funding for gauges has been threatened in prior years but persistence by former U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Nanticoke, kept the money in the federal budget.

This time around, there appears to be a worried concern by Jim Brozena, executive director of the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority, and Steve Bekanich, county emergency management coordinator.

“This year seems a little more critical than in prior years,” Brozena said. “Money has always been earmarked in the past. All of a sudden, Washington (D.C.) is making a stance that there wasn’t going to be any earmarks at all.”

“It’s not looking too good at this point because federal officials haven’t passed a budget yet,” Bekanich said.

“Congressman Lou Barletta (R-Hazleton) will be examining the situation closely in the coming weeks,” stated Megan Sweeney, Barletta’s director of communications.

U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Lycoming Township, said he is hopeful that the flood warning system can remain active.

“Obviously, the early detection and timely issuance of flood warnings is critical, especially for people and businesses residing in the Susquehanna River Basin. As I have always said, while Congress must rein in the out-of-control spending, it must take a common-sense approach and do so in a thoughtful, transparent, and efficient manner after thoroughly considering the benefits of the programs versus the cost.

“I am confident that the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, Congress and the Administration can work together to assure that a solution is reached to protect the health and safety of the people in the Susquehanna River Basin,” Marino stated in an e-mail.

If gauges are turned off, Brozena and Bekanich said, estimating river crest at times of flooding will be difficult and time consuming. Officials will be forced to rely on staff gauges painted on bridge support columns to estimate river crests, they said.

Major evacuations due to predicted flooding were ordered in the Kingston-Wilkes-Barre area in 1996 and 2006.

“On certain bridges there are staff gauges, and they are fewer and far in between,” Bekanich said. “We would need to observe the staff gauges and estimate how fast the river is rising instead of relying on real-time data the river gauges provide.”

“You can go out and read those staff gauges and say the river is high, but the problem is the staff gauges don’t predict how high the river will crest,” Brozena said.

“River and stream gauges are the backbone of the flood warning system. It’s not only a property issue but a life saving issue,” he said.

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