Flooding study clears U.S. House hurdle

Published 9:32 am Saturday, July 25, 2009

WASHINGTON—A proposal to have the federal government spend $100,000 for the Army Corps of Engineers to study Chowan River Basin flooding has passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

The $100,000 earmarked for the basin study is included in bill HR3183, also known as the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2010. The bill would provide $33.3 billion for the Corps, the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Water Reclamation, nuclear energy and waste disposal, technology loans, uranium enrichment, and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

“Residents of the Chowan River Basin have struggled with unpredictable and sometimes devastating flooding for decades,” U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) said Thursday. “This flooding not only destroys the physical infrastructure of area communities but significantly stunts current and potential economic growth.”

The bill passed the House by a 320-97 vote on July 17. It was read twice in the Senate on July 20 and has been placed on the Senate’s legislative calendar.

“I’m excited that the House has passed it,” Franklin Mayor Jim Councill said Friday. “We understand that (U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb) are both in favor. Whatever we can do to get that money and get a project started would be just wonderful.”

Several local government officials, including Forbes, have been pushing Congress to fund a more comprehensive study of the watershed, which in the last 10 years has had record flooding six times. A comprehensive study is estimated to cost $500,000.

Forbes described the $100,000 appropriation for the Chowan River Basin study as “significant” because of a backlog of unfunded projects at the Corps, and a moratorium on starting new ones.

“It was a long road to authorize this study and then to secure the initial funding for this project,” Forbes said. “Now that we’ve met these two critical steps, I’m more determined than ever to push this project across the finish line and finally start the process of determining why these floods are occurring and what we need to do to mitigate them.”

Councill added, “We’re hopeful that Congress will carry the day on this proposal to get the funding so that the Corps can come up and continue to help us with this process. It’s my understanding that the only way the Corps can do that is to have it specifically funded. They do not have discretionary funds to decide what they fund and what they do not.”

The $100,000 proposal is in addition to $96,000 from the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009, which was given to the Corps to conduct a reconnaissance study of the watershed. The reconnaissance study will evaluate how to protect and restore wetlands and forest buffers damaged by flooding and erosion, reduce flood damages and improve navigation.

In October, the Corps began a $90,000 project in the basin, installing six stream gauges at locations along the Meherrin, the Nottoway and the Blackwater.

Future plans call for the installation of additional stream gauges as well as rainfall and water-quality gauges.

The Blackwater, Nottoway and Meherrin rivers are all part of the Chowan River Basin, which is about 130 miles long and drains 5,000 square miles of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.

Hurricane Floyd was the flood of record in 1999, followed by the flood in October 2006. Hurricane Isabel in 2003 was ranked fifth-highest.

Some possible explanations for the floods include consecutive weather events, fallen trees, encroachment from development, accumulation of silt in tributaries and reservoirs or a combination of these.