All of the Champlain Valley communities that suffered flooding during this spring's snowmelt and those damaged by Tropical Storm Irene in September could be better prepared the next time such a disaster threatens homes.
But congressional budget cuts are threatening to shut down the U.S. Geological Survey's local stream and river gauges — our only early warning system for floods. That would increase the danger to local people, homes and businesses.
This is happening at a time when higher year-round temperatures are driving up the frequency and severity of big storms.
Congressman Bill Owens of Plattsburgh was the first to sound the alarm on this problem, sending a letter this summer urging the USGS to restore the funding.
While the USGS did manage to keep them open past the Oct. 1 start of the 2011-12 federal fiscal year, it still lacks the funding to keep them open beyond March 2012.
Clearly, we need more help, from both sides of the lake and beyond.
There are nine stream/river gauges slated to close in the northern Adirondack Park. Statewide, there are 21 more due to shut down in March 2012, ranging from the lower Hudson River to the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier. Six more on Long Island closed in March.
The Adirondack Council and local leaders are urging Congress and the Obama administration to replace the tiny federal appropriation that would eliminate this threat. Cuts like these should be unthinkable in the Adirondack Park. They would degrade public safety far beyond the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain.
The USGS is not a well-known agency. But if you have ever heard a weather forecaster warn you that a river was about to rise over its banks, you have benefited from its work. If you ever wondered how New York proves to federal regulators that it is reducing the amount of pollution entering Lake Champlain, the answer is USGS research and data.
For riverside communities such as Keene Valley, AuSable Forks, Jay and Elizabethtown, USGS could provide maps showing where future flooding is likely to occur. This program, called Flood Inundation Mapping, can be used in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to identify which homes and business should have federal assistance in moving out of harm's way.
The maps could help town and county governments decide how to preserve, or improve, bridges, culverts and roadways prone to erosion from flooding. In turn, that would curb the pressure on local highway crews to straighten and widen brooks and streams, which can damage fish habitat and water quality, and damage property downstream.
It would also allow the communities to install a Reverse 911 warning system for residents and businesses in flood-prone areas. Reverse 911 is a system that would automatically place phone calls to those homes and businesses when stream levels reached a certain height.
With today's technology, USGS can do the whole job in most communities for less than $40,000. But those measurements require USGS gauges to be in place in the rivers.
The total cost of running the nine Adirondack gauges is about $134,000 annually. All 30 across the state cost about $429,000 per year — a pittance for Congress.
USGS has seen its stream-gauge budget slashed before. In the past, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy saved the money with an "earmark." As a champion of Lake Champlain water-quality improvements, Leahy was able to gain approval from his colleagues in Congress each year for a small amount of money to be set aside specifically for vital stream measurements on both sides of the lake.
Those days are over. Congress has eliminated all earmarks but has done little to ensure that the crucial environmental and public safety programs they once funded will survive.
That is where you come in. Please urge our congressional delegation and congressional leaders from Vermont to restore this money.
More than 20 years ago, the Adirondack Park/Lake Champlain region we share was recognized by the United Nations Man in the Biosphere Program as one of the most important natural areas on Earth — a World Biosphere Reserve.
It is time for Congress to treat the area with the same respect.
John F. Sheehan is director of communications for the Adirondack Council.