|A road floods in Sugar Run, Terry Township, PA|
Floods happen. They are an integral and permanent part of a river's natural cycle. Even with dams, levees and all the engineering innovations of the past, the present & the morrow...rivers will continue to inundate their floodplains until the end of time. Man may delay the outcome, but nature always prevails. People construct homes and buildings of commerce on floodplains. After each flood, these same people cry for more protection. "Raise the levees - dredge the river"...not realizing neither action will prevent future floods. Prior to the 1700's, Pennsylvania - "Penn's Woods" - was covered by forests from the Delaware River to Lake Erie. It was once written that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic shores to the Mississippi River without ever having to touch the ground. And amidst the forests were the swamps, a.k.a. wetlands. More than half the wetlands are gone, and even today the forests are sold to the highest bidder behind closed doors.
Think about the travels of a raindrop back then. It would first contact the upper reaches of the arboreal canopy maybe 150 feet above the forest floor. Layer upon layer of pine, oak, hemlock and maple would slow its descent. When it eventually reached the ground, which was cooled by almost constant
shade, it would slowly seep into the dense humus-rich soils and percolate into and become part of the water table. Any dust or impurities were removed either by chemical or physical processes. The forests & wetlands acted as buffers, reservoirs and filters. How was water quality back then? You can't even imagine.
Picture that same raindrop hitting a parking lot, driveway or city landscape of today. Surface runoff - storm drain - sewer system - stream. It gets to the nearest waterway a lot faster, dirtier and warmer than its counterpart of yesteryear. Envision that same area covered by thousands of umbrellas at various levels, with the ground itself covered with sponges wrapped in fine, porous filters. A very simple example, yes. But that's what is missing today. The forests and wetlands were nature's flood protection and water purification system for hundreds of thousands of years. Today, we pay for a far inferior substitute that once was perfectly free.
The Army Corps of Engineers knows it...they just won't tell you. As more land is developed, as more forests are felled, wetlands filled and streams channelized...floods along the Susquehanna are going to increase in magnitude. If an event equal to Hurricane Agnes in 1972 occurred today...the newly raised levees in the Wyoming Valley would not provide the level of protection anticipated. In the last 30 years, people have been very busy upstream - and they have not been planting trees and saving wetlands.