Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Dams Aren't Spigots

By Phil Coleman, Sylvanian Co-Editor

I remember only one public hearing when I was booed by the audience. Back 40 years ago, the Soil Conservation Service wanted to dam three small streams in southwestern Pennsylvania in order, as they said, to provide flood protection for people who lived in the flood plain downstream. I stood up at the hearing and made two points: 

1) people who live in the flood plain do so at some risk; 

2) dams aren’t spigots: they can’t turn off the water, they just hold it back for a while. 

People didn’t want to hear point number one. And very few of them understood point number two. So they booed. One young father said I would be to blame when his children drowned.

Let’s fast forward. After Hurricane Sandy wrecked coastal communities in New Jersey and New York and FEMA needed massive funds to aid flood victims, many in Congress (and elsewhere) objected to the deficit spending required to supply aid: this at a time when Congress was blaming the President and the President was blaming Congress over their inability to construct a deficit-free budget.

In response, Congress developed and passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012. It is a massive and detailed act that tries to deal with several different aspects of flooding and flood protection. I can’t summarize it in detail; I don’t understand all the details. But it tries to deal both with the areas of repeated flooding and areas that haven’t flooded yet.
If you live in the flood plain of a big river, you may be flooded every few years. [In fact, one problem people have to deal with is that the so-called hundred year flood may occur several times in a hundred years.]

If you live on the coast (as I do, by the way), you may not have experienced a flood ever, but the flood when it comes in the form of a hurricane may totally demolish your home and all the infrastructure that goes with it.

The Biggert-Waters Bill tries to deal with the home that has been repeatedly flooded and the home that has never been flooded. And that’s a challenge. Creating a fund that is large enough to handle all possible damages without relying on deficit spending has meant phasing in massive increases to flood insurance premiums – even when it is phased in over five years – threatens to upset local economies.

We are faced with problems we don’t want to admit. A huge and growing population crowds more people into flood prone areas. Deforestation, expanding highways and parking lots contribute to rapid rain runoff and floods. A less than healthy economy puts a pinch on everyone and makes taxation a burden. The tremendous and growing inequality in wealth has added to poverty – even in our prosperous country.

We can’t seem to come close to agreeing on priorities. [For instance, which is more important: public education or military strength?]

In this era of economic stagnation, the Biggert – Waters Bill, which will bring hardship and even bankruptcy to a few million who have thought of themselves as secure, may be the best Congress can manage.

By the way, do you know how a dam differs from a spigot?

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