Lessons from the Flood of 1996: Bringing Upstreamers and Downstreamers Together
By Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D.**
Wilkes University,

Written January 1996

In June of 1972, the nation watched with intense interest as low-lying communities throughout Pennsylvania were devastated by the great flood of Hurricane Agnes. The response to that disaster was overwhelming. Millions of dollars of aid poured into the stricken areas. Thousands of volunteers traveled to the area to unselfishly help the affected population get their lives back in order.

Yet, many people who lived safely out of the floodplain were not as generous in their view of the flood victims. Those living on higher ground reasoned that people should be smart enough to live and work out of the floodplain. Obviously, anyone who was flooded by the river or its tributaries should simply move to higher ground, out of harm's way.

In the years following Agnes, many residents of flood-ravaged communities did move to higher ground. However, most people returned to their former homes, and even new residents moved into the areas that were formerly flooded. Both the returnees and the newcomers perceived that Agnes was the "Flood of the Century", unlikely to recur in the foreseeable future. The convenience to work and shopping outweighed the apparently minimal risk of another flood.

The complacency of thousands of residents along the Susquehanna and its tributaries was recently shattered when they had to evacuate to escape the threat of another flood. They waited to see if the Susquehanna would spill over the levees and inundate the Wyoming Valley. But yet, a strange irony developed. Only several months ago, Pennsylvania suffered through a Drought Emergency. Residents could not wash their cars at home, water their lawns, or fill their swimming pools, all for the sake of water conservation. Knowing the vagaries of nature, it is easy to envision that another Drought Emergency could be imposed again, should conditions prove to be as hot and dry as those last summer. But, for those few hours on a Saturday in mid-January, surging water was the enemy.

Our inability to retain water during periods of surplus should be cause for concern. A heavy snowfall followed by warm temperatures, or a prolonged period of heavy rain now seems to invariably produce a potential for catastrophic flooding.

Undoubtedly, a primary reason for this increased risk to low-lying areas is urbanization of areas higher in the watershed. Whenever a structure is built and adjoining areas are paved for roads and parking lots, water that would have seeped into the ground now flows directly to the nearest storm sewer. Even worse, wetlands that are particularly efficient at storing water have historically been filled in, exacerbating the risk of flooding. The net result is that stormwater is efficiently shunted to the nearest creek, and thence to the river.

From the point of view of the property owner living far from the river (the "upstreamer"), efficiently getting rid of snowmelt or stormwater makes sense. After all, who wants a basement full of water, or a street that turns into a mudhole every time it rains? The upstreamer would think: "Simply direct the water to the nearest drain and the problem disappears."

However, from the point of view of the floodplain resident (the "downstreamer"), those stormwater management practices pose an increased risk for flooding. The downstreamer would think: "It's the inconsiderate people upstream who are creating the problem; they should behave in a more responsible fashion."

Of course, those who insist on living within areas prone to frequent (annual to even 25-year recurrent floods) should move to higher ground.

But what about those who live on land that is flooded less frequently?

The solution to that dilemma seems obvious, if we realize that water is a precious resource. We have to develop a better system to capture and store water when blessed with heavy snows or rains. True, a series of flood-control dams and reservoirs does currently exist in several watersheds - such as the north branch of the Susquehanna. However, that system is clearly inadequate.

Doing a better job of holding onto water during periods of surplus would have two benefits. First, it would reduce downstream flooding. Second, it would give us additional storage from which we can draw when droughts hit.

To that end, what specific measures should be taken? On a small scale, we should try to take advantage of the natural water-holding ability of soil throughout the upper part of each watershed. One way to accomplish that goal would be to avoid covering areas with an impermeable surface, whenever possible. For example, a parking lot could be surfaced with new permeable materials rather than standard asphalt.

On a larger scale, the focus of stormwater management has to shift from the concept of efficiently diverting water to the nearest creek to an alternative of creating more effective stormwater detention basins.

On even a larger scale, we absolutely must recognize the importance of natural wetlands in regional water storage. Thus, wetland protection should remain a top priority. Current efforts to weaken existing wetland laws, by restricting the definition of what areas constitute a wetland, or increasing the range of activities that fall under the jurisdiction of easily-obtainable General Permits are misguided and should be stopped. Indeed, property owners should be encouraged to create wetlands.

At the largest scale, we should establish a system of strategically-placed dams and reservoirs that would remain empty except during times of water surplus.

Certainly, even the best water-storage system can fail or can be overwhelmed by truly unusual circumstances. Thus, owners of property should not be lulled into a false sense of security. They should assume some economic risk by purchasing flood insurance.

How would these practices be adopted? To ensure uniformity and fairness, the most logical approach would be to enforce existing laws, enact additional legislation, and create agencies that would oversee the distribution of water resources in watersheds.

Of course, this is the 1990s and deregulation is the craze. Upstreamers could likely counter that flood-control is not their worry. They shouldn't have to be forced to take potentially costly measures to reduce the risk of flooding to those who choose to live downstream. Put in the more acerbic terms of the 1990s, upstreamers would argue that it's their right to use their property as they want. As American citizens, they should have every right to pave over their land, fill any wetland that it contains, and remove stormwater as expediently as possible.

The solution is that everybody must work together to achieve an end that benefits all. Upstreamers should recognize that their property rights are not absolute, and that they do not have the right to engage in practices that endanger those living downstream. At the same time, downstreamers should recognize that living in a floodplain does pose inherent risk, and that even the best flood-protection plan is not absolutely failsafe. Above all, despite the concept that we live in a nation where individualism and self-sufficiency are prized, we have to recognize that we do live in a society whereby upstreamers and downstreamers are interconnected. Thus, we must identify and engage in practices that benefit all, to the greatest possible exent.

This page posted and maintained by Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D., Biology Department, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766. (570) 408-4758, kklemow@wilkes.edu.