Did you know that during severe droughts, the freshwater inflow from the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay drops by as much as 50 percent because of human activities and consumption?
Did you know that in the Potomac basin, the federal government is the largest landowner, holding more than a million acres of land?
Some members of Congress feel that there is no federal interest in the commissions that manage and protect the water resources of the Susquehanna and Potomac River basins. They assert that the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) serve only the states, not the federal government.
But there is no basis for that comment. Federal agencies have major responsibilities for flood control, water supply, water quality and living resource enhancement in these river basins. Their work is closely intertwined with the functions of the commissions. Cooperation and coordination among the federal agencies, states and commissions is best achieved through these interstate agencies. The commissions form a vital link between the federal government and the states.
Funding for both commissions, recommended in the president's budget, was rejected by Congress last year. This year, the president failed to include federal funding for the commissions in his budget recommendation to Congress. Our remaining hope to stop this federal slippage now rests with Congress.
If our basins aren't a federal interest, what are they?
The basins contribute about 70 percent of the freshwater flowing to the Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest and most-valued estuary. Both agencies support the federal-state efforts to restore the Bay and are an important part of this immense process.
The two commissions also have acted as bridges between the Bay restoration program and the two non-signatory states in the Bay watershed, New York and West Virginia.
Both commissions provide a vital link in the process of providing water to users from U.S. Army Corps of Engineer projects.
In the Susquehanna basin, SRBC pays the federal government more than $3.5 million annually for water storage at the Cowanesque Reservoir in Tioga County, Pa. and Curwensville Reservoir in Clearfield County, Pa.
The Cowanesque water storage project epitomizes water resources management on an interstate basis. In an agreement with the Corps of Engineers in 1986, the SRBC purchased 25,000 acre-feet of water storage at the reservoir for water supply. During times of low flows or droughts, the SRBC directs the Army Corps to release the quantity of water necessary to restore river levels. The reservoir water flows into the Cowanesque River in Pennsylvania, then into New York through the Tioga River and later the Chemung River, where the increased river flow benefits New York communities, including Corning and Elmira. The Chemung River then flows into the main branch of the Susquehanna River below Sayre, Pa. From there, downstream users along the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania and Maryland benefit. In particular, this program is vitally important to the Chesapeake Bay, as it helps maintain flows to the estuary.
Over a 16-day period in August 1995, the most recent drought year, the SRBC released almost 900 million gallons from the Cowanesque reservoir. The loss of federal funds will hamper the commission's ability to enhance its water storage program.
In the Potomac Basin, the water utilities in the Washington metropolitan area serving the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia suburbs purchased storage in the Jennings Randolph reservoir located in the Potomac headwaters, about 200 miles upstream. The utilities also built the Seneca reservoir in Montgomery County, Md. Through a unit created by the utilities within the commission, the ICPRB assists in the effective coordinated management of all reservoir storage in the metropolitan area and from Jennings Randolph.
Perhaps the most important service it provides is the implementation of the drought management plan, which provides for the allocation of water during periods of droughts. The ICPRB would call upon the Corps to make releases from Jennings Randolph when needed.
Both commissions have saved the federal government millions of dollars in finding and promoting solutions to the growing need for sources of potable water. As an example, the ICPRB demonstrated that by integrated management of the reservoirs in the Potomac Basin, only one of 16 reservoir projects proposed by the Corps of Engineers was needed to meet water supply needs well into the future. Through the years, the ICPRB analysis has proven to be accurate, thereby saving millions of dollars in construction costs.
Each commission has worked as an intermediary between water utilities and the government to promote the efficient use of an increasingly precious resource. Planning for a supply of water with the federal government, water utilities and state agencies is an ongoing task.
The commissions work to mitigate the impacts of floods. In fact, the Susquehanna Basin is one of the most flood-prone basins in the nation, experiencing six times the national average in damages each year. Last year alone, flooding in the basin resulted in the loss of 16 lives and property damages in excess of $1 billion. As part of its flood mitigation responsibilities, the SRBC coordinates the Susquehanna River Basin Flood Forecast and Warning System, which helps save lives and reduce damages during floods.
The ICPRB is providing assistance to federal agencies, states and local communities in flood management.
More recently, it participated in the Western Maryland Task Force that developed a flood management plan for a four-county region, mostly in the Potomac watershed. The ICPRB has been asked to expand that plan to bring in other headwater areas in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.The flood management plan entails considerable liaison with federal agencies, particularly the Corps of Engineers, Department of Agriculture, National Park Service, and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Another interstate issue important to the federal government is the river basin commissions' ability to prevent conflicts over water use. Unlike the current water wars taking place in court rooms in other parts of the country, our commissions have the ability to resolve such conflicts through administrative, and less costly, means.
This is certainly a value the federal government should not look upon lightly. The commissions are actually taking the burden off the federal government with regard to these interstate disputes. Without the commission, disputes over interstate water rights within our watershed will increase and be thrust upon the federal court system to resolve, burdening an already overburdened system.
The Susquehanna and Potomac River basins are federal interests, and the reasons cited are just a few examples. They show how various levels of government can be brought together to cooperate and efficiently address problems of a regional nature. The federal government shouldn't be getting rid of river basin commissions, they should be creating more throughout the country. And the results of our commissions' efforts can serve as a model.
It's worth noting that the federal government is spending huge sums of money in other regions of the country to manage their water resources, for example, the Columbia River and the Everglades. Why is it a federal interest to manage those watersheds and ecosystems, but not the largest rivers on the East Coast? We believe that it is every bit as important for the federal government to recognize its very significant interest in the effective management of the eastern river basins.
Paul O. Swartz is Executive Director of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. Herbert M. Sachs is Executive Director of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.