Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Senate Committees Hear Short-Term Measures Like Stream Cleaning May Make Flooding Worse If Stream Characteristics Not Taken Into Account

The Senate Environmental Resources and Energy and Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committees Wednesday held a joint hearing on flooding and emergency response with testimony by state and local officials.  
One comment made by several witnesses suggested short-term measures like potentially harmful "stream cleaning" may make flooding problems worse if the characteristics of streams are not taken into account.
On the other hand, there are steps communities can take before and after flooding to reduce the damage caused by stormwater and flooding.
Click Here to watch a video of the hearing and for available written testimony.
Patrick McDonnell, Secretary of DEP, provided an overview of the agency’s responsibilities during flooding events, including monitoring damage to sewage and drinking water treatment facilities, spill, storage tank and hazardous materials response, issuing emergency permits to restore roads, cleanup debris and for stream stabilization, ensuring safe disposal of flood debris and monitoring dams and flood control projects.
He noted DEP assists communities before flooding occurs by ensuring stream work is done in an environmentally responsible manner and in a way that does not actually cause flooding later.
McDonnell said a recently released publication-- Guidelines for Maintaining Streams in Your Community-- is designed to help communities head off problems and understand the agency’s permit and approval process for stream-related improvements.
He also described DEP’s limited Flood Protection and Stream Improvement programs that can get involved in building some local flood protection projects, working with federal and other partners.
His written testimony outlined the kinds of flood debris removal and other activities that require and do not require pre-approval by DEP.
He also described recent updates to the agency’s Chapter 105 water obstructions and encroachments permit process that will speed reviews and help applicants where permits are needed to reduce the risk of flooding and water pollution.
McDonnell pointed to the examples of the 2011 Tropical Storm Lee flooding that resulted in the Northcentral Regional Office issuing more than 700 emergency permits and the 2017 flash flooding in Bradford County where more than 86 emergency permits were issued to deal with waterway restoration issues.
He noted other flood recovery resource materials are posted on DEP’s Storm Recovery Information webpage to help individuals and communities deal with the aftermath of flooding events.
“We recognize the varied geology across our state, and are continuing to work with local and federal partners to create appropriate processes that acknowledges the conditions while protecting public safety and our environment,” said McDonnell.  “As I said at the outset of my testimony, staff at DEP work hard, and collaboratively, to determine how we can avoid environmental problems. We all believe that if we can proactively reduce the cause, we will spend less time on managing the impacts after the fact.”
Richard Flinn, Director, PA Emergency Management Agency, provided an overview of the agency’s responsibilities in responding to and preventing flooding and flood damage and said this winter’s flooding has been different than other years due to ice jams.
Flooding from ice jams, in particular, is difficult to predict, he said, and PEMA and federal and local agencies took steps to closely monitor the jams to help provide flood warnings down stream.
Flinn said PEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Program helps to remove homes from flood risk areas and prevent damage and has installed online cameras in certain areas to help residents and agencies monitor flood water levels to people out of harm’s way when needed.
He said this past season also saw landslide damage, particularly in Allegheny County, caused by rain during the winter and early spring.  He noted this has been the wettest January through March ever recorded in Allegheny County in history.
Damage assessors are now out in the affected areas of Allegheny County to determine the amount of damage to see if it meets the threshold for a federal disaster declaration.
Flinn said one thing the state does not have is a disaster relief fund or a state hazard mitigation fund to provide financial assistance to homeowners and businesses to help recover from or prevent flood damage.  
He said PEMA is also reviewing Senate Bill 1131 (Costa-D-Allegheny) that would create a Landslide Insurance and Assistance program.
Flinn also said land use changes, fewer trees and more paved areas have caused an increase in flooding events and flooding in areas that have not been affected before.  In addition, he said the state is seeing the effects of climate change that may worsen precipitation events.
Andrew Shields, Director Bureau of Fisheries, Fish & Boat Commission, said the Commission acts as an advisor to DEP on stream issues and during the Chapter 105 permitting process to ensure the protection of waterways and aquatic life.
Shields said often “stream cleaning” is referred to as a tool for dealing with flooding, but he pointed out there can be acute and chronic impacts on stream life and physical habitats from the practice.
He said riparian buffers and other best management practices can help reduce the impacts of stormwater and flooding more than stream cleaning.
“... (N)o one can fully predict how much rain will fall, how fast snow will melt or when river ice will back up. Catastrophic hurricanes, tropical storms and severe localized rain events seem to be occurring more frequently in Pennsylvania and may eventually overwhelm our attempts to plan and design around them,” said Shields.
“However, if we employ best management practices in land use planning and understand the physical properties of water and water flows, we can work with the natural processes of rivers and floodplains rather than against them. Humans, fish, aquatic species, and water quality all benefit when a stream or river can perform its naturally intended functions,” said Shields.
In response to questions, Shields said additional impacts are being felt from changes in climate that are causing an increase in more severe precipitation events.
Matt Brown, Allegheny County Dept. Of Emergency Services, described how “many cities and municipalities within Allegheny County are extremely stretched financially or have completely exhausted their available budgets related to storm, rain and flooding damages, as well as landslide response. And we are only into early April with many Spring weather events predicted.
“The continuous nature of these weather cycles has severely impacted every person and element of Allegheny County and continues to threaten the area with additional flooding and landslides as we speak.
“Resiliency is a cornerstone of Allegheny County in all aspects of government and with our residents. However, our combined capacity to recover from these extreme conditions continues to be in jeopardy and impactful to the residents of Allegheny County.”
Stephen Libhart, Dauphin County Emergency Management, described how flooding events have affected county residents and business over the years.
“Flooding will always be a risk to many communities in Dauphin County. Our local municipalities, first responders and utility providers have proven time and again their ability to respond and assist during these events.
“The long-lasting impacts can create major financial burdens on individuals, businesses and governments that last long after the flood waters recede. The federal programs, some of which I have discussed are imperative to assist in the recovery process and we should actively advocate for their continuation, adequate funding and even their expansion.
“States should also create similar programs for those events that do not meet the federal thresholds for eligibility.”
Mike Lovegreen, Bradford County Conservation District, outlined the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan which identified flooding and stream channel erosion as top concerns.
“One of the central acknowledgements in both studies, and one that is constantly reinforced by my experience, is that the true stewards of our stream resources are the individuals, farmers and communities that live and manage the areas in the Stream Corridor," said Lovegreen.
"While legislation and regulation are somewhat effective, true resource management can only be achieved when individuals directly impacting the resource understand the workings and consequences of their actions.”
Lovegreen said one of the additional steps it has taken is to educate first responders and local officials on emergency stream intervention “without adding adverse impacts as a result of uninformed excavation of the stream channel.”
“[We are] recognizing that streams in similar setting of watershed, hydrology, etc., develop characteristics (morphology) that are similar and that provide stable functions of water and sediment transport. With this transport stability also comes habitat stability.
“Working with the USGS and their “Stream Stats” program, we have been able to develop sets of “regional curves” that approximate the dimensions of a stream channel in an identified region and watershed, along with its corresponding floodplain needs. In Bradford County we have refined this tool down to a County specific level.
“This essential tool provides a manner to deliver a rough version of the science and engineering needed to approximate stable channel dimension for any point along a stream.
“Combined with a full day of training to explain both “how a stream works and responds” with a full explanation of the tool’s use, we believe we finally have an approach to begin that “cultural change” in how we manage our stream corridors that is understandable at the local level.”
Lovegreen said one of the reactions he has gotten from these education sessions has been local officials coming up to him saying, “They’ve been telling me for years not to dredge these streams, and now I understand why.”
Tom Blaskiewicz, Mayor, Borough Of West Pittston (Luzerne County), provided an overview of the flooding events affecting the Borough from the 1972, Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 and most recently the ice jams in January of this year.
He outlined the steps taken by the Borough, with other state and federal partners, to use hazard mitigation to reduce property damage and reducing flood risk reduction through structural solutions.
“In the Wyoming Valley, West Pittston is unlike any of the other communities that are not protected by the levee system. West Pittston has no vacant land to expand its tax base,” said Blaskiewicz.  “Exacerbating the problem is the loss of tax revenue from properties acquired through the various federal programs that preclude any development on parcels following acquisition. Additionally, the threat of flooding is depressing real estate values of the properties located in the floodplain.
“Once you add in the impacts of skyrocketing flood insurance rates, the situation is bleak for river communities. Pennsylvania needs to develop a comprehensive approach that balances structural projects with mitigation activities. New approaches, similar to the options studied by Lycoming County and the Corps of Engineers in 2016, need to become part of the toolbox for existing in the floodplain.”
Andy Walker, Manager, City of Meadville (Crawford County), outlined the significant impacts of the January ice jams on his community resulting flooding along French Creek in Meadville and the county.
He said among the lessons learned in these events was while they were well equipped to handle the flooding and cleanup aspects of these events, they were not well prepared to address the technical and regulatory aspects of ice jam removal.
Mary Ellen Ramage, Manager, Borough Of Etna (Allegheny County), also provided an overview of how flooding events have had an impact on the residents and businesses in Etna over the years.
She noted stream gauges have helped with advance warning of flooding and residents log onto their website and look at the stream gauges directly to see how heavy rain may affect them.
She said restoring natural floodplains would be difficult in Etna given the development there.  “It would be far cheaper to flood-proof those homes or protect upstream then to tear them down and relocate people.”
“We need to incorporate a more holistic approach to development, including highway systems. Planning projects should be inclusive of the communities surrounding these projects to identify areas where stormwater and localized flooding is already an issue so that we aren’t contributing to an existing problem.
“This should include technical experts like those at the Army Corps of Engineers, who deal with flood protection planning projects regularly so that features are built in at the time of construction to lessen and perhaps actually improve flooding and stormwater issues already prevalent in those areas.
Ellen Ramage also pointed to the steadily increasing National Flood Insurance Program rates over the last few years and the expected 25 percent increase over the next five years as a significant problems.
She said these increases are driving people from their homes and “this helps no one.”
“There are no words to describe what it’s like to experience a flood - simply put, it wipes you out,” said Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny), Majority Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee.  He urged the state agencies to work more closely with local officials to clean out creeks from debris so that flooding can be prevented or limited.
“Flooding throughout Pennsylvania has caused devastation to many of our local communities over the years,” said Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee. “This Hearing provided an opportunity to discuss necessary resources and financial assistance for many of our communities still in recovery."
Sen. Yaw added at the end of the hearing that while there have been hearings before on the flooding issues “the stars may be lining up on this issue” in terms of seeing further action to help.
Click Here to watch a video of the hearing and for available written testimony.
Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) serves as Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Committee and can be contacted by calling 717-787-3280 or sending email to:   Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne) serves as Minority Chair and can be contacted by calling 717-787-7105 or sending email to:
Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny) serves as Majority Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee and can be contacted by calling 717-787-6538 or by sending email to:  Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) serves as Minority Chair and can be contacted by calling 717-787-7683 or by sending email to:
(Photo: Andrew Shields, Fish & Boat Commission; Richard Flinn, PA Emergency Management Agency; Patrick McDonnell, Secretary of DEP.)
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