Flood reality: vision or the lack of it

By FREDERICA LEIGHTON

Since June 2006’s devastating floods affected huge areas of Northeastern Pennsylvania and South Central New York State, local residents live with “flood reality.” Long after news coverage of the disaster has died, daily life continues with FEMA struggles, insurance problems, clean-up burdens, property-loss assessments and flood-related hassles.

The psychological impact of flood reality also continues as traumatized citizens ask: “How did it happen again?” “Why did it happen again?” “When will it happen again?” The June 2006 flood marks the third major flood event in 18 months. So what’s going on? Don’t we have dams on upstream tributaries of the Delaware in both Pennsylvania and New York? Aren’t these dams supposed to function as flood control devices? They could, but they haven’t.

The simple fact is that dams are only as effective as their operational procedure allows. The organizations that operate the dams, and more specifically the licenses that control their operation, define the dam’s use. While newer dams like Jadwin (1959) and Prompton (1960) were built along the Lackawaxen River with the intention of flood control, older ones like PPL’s Lake Wallenpaupack dam feature power generation as their licensed use. Reservoirs in New York State like Pepacton, Cannonsville, and Neversink, managed by the New York Department of Environmental Protection, control their dams to provide water supply, drought control and recreation. They too have no enforced flood control mandates.

Unfortunately, the environmental affairs departments of most corporations and government agencies are staffed with lawyers, not environmentalists. If the operating license or management plan doesn’t state flood control, the company or agency bears no obligation and often refuses to help prevent private property loss and provide public safety measures through proactively controlled releases of excess water. In some cases, business interests prevail above public interests while in others, political interests prevail. The environment comes last.

Residents and communities, “the dam down-streamers,” want to know why their upstream dam masters fail to incorporate flood mitigation measures into their operating policies. Three flood disasters in less that two years have crippled residents, businesses and local governments. They have destroyed roads, bridges, homes and other infrastructure from upstate New York and Northeastern Pennsylvania all the way down the Delaware River to Trenton, NJ.

To address the problem, a regional plan must be developed for lake and reservoir operations that employ protocols giving attention to high water and drought events. If private companies and public agencies fail to apply flood mitigation measures to dams in their jurisdiction, outraged citizens and public officials need to step in and force action. Given the deplorable situation resulting from the recent disasters, it is clear that flood mitigation protocols for our dams and reservoirs must be implemented without delay. Local residents and local economies should be spared another dose of flood reality.

[Frederica Leighton is the President of the Lackawaxen River Conservancy in Rowland, PA.]