To help alleviate damage caused by flooding, Pa. officials ask for ‘eyes on the ground’

After seeing an increase in flooding, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is encouraging residents to take action sooner rather than later when it comes to stream maintenance.

“We want people to work with us and not be afraid of us or do things ... that could be the wrong thing,” said Megan Lehman, DEP North-central Regional Office community relations coordinator.

In its third open house on Monday evening, representatives from DEP invited officials from PennDOT, the Centre County Conservation District and elected county officials to discuss Restore Pennsylvania and ways to proactively maintain waterways in order to alleviate damage created by flooding — the DEP’s biggest concern.

Over the past several years, Lehman said the DEP has seen an increase in rainfall.

“Anywhere that the water is you can have flooding,” Lehman said. “We’re blessed with abundant water resources in this region, which is a good thing, but also can be a bad thing when we get too much rain.”

While the DEP’s North-central Regional Office covers 14 counties — Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Columbia, Lycoming, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga and Union— Lehman said flooding has been seen in every area. She attributes a changing climate as a potential cause for the increase in rain.

“We do recognize ... that our climate is changing, and that seems to come with abnormal rainfall patterns,” Lehman said. “A few years back, there were droughts, and now every year, it seems to be unprecedented, record-setting amounts of rain.”

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed Restore Pennsylvania plan aims to assist local endeavors to improve waterways and other environmental initiatives. At the open house, DEP Regional Director Marcus Kohl said the legislation will help with stream maintenance if it is voted into law.

During a June Centre County Board of Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Steve Dershem opposed a resolution that supported Restore Pennsylvania’s $4.5 billion infrastructure improvement plan, saying that it places a severance tax on the natural gas industry and poses too many uncertainties. Commissioner Michael Pipe, who was in attendance at Monday’s open house, and Commissioner Mark Higgins voted in support of the resolution.

DEP Local Government Liaison Dan Vilello said the impact fee on natural gas companies will still stay in place.

Residents who notice problems are encouraged to call DEP officials for guidance on how to best resolve issues. Depending on what kind of work is needed, permitting is required, Lehman said. In the meantime, DEP officials ask that residents work to call attention to local problems as they arise.

“Call us first because sometimes people are afraid to do anything because they think they aren’t allowed, but they actually are,” Lehman said.

As many as 1,500 emergency work permits have been issued over the past year, Kohl said. Those permits, he said, are issued in “a matter of hours” after an event. Last year, Kohl said nobody waited more than three days before hearing a response from the DEP.

“We’re hearing from the residents that (flooding) is terribly devastating to their lives,” Kohl said. “It throws everything in shambles, and we’re kind of the first responders to these people who are out there trying to get their life in order.”

Kohl said the DEP does not have the authority to work on waterways owned by outside entities; however, it does have the ability to authorize activity to maintain streams. Although maintenance and conservation efforts could be in everyone’s best interest, the DEP cannot force anyone to complete work on property.

In an attempt to alleviate problems for downstream neighbors in the future, Kohl and Vilello said residents should reach out to DEP officials when they have questions or concerns about how to best maintain local waterways and use their common sense.

“A lot of times, people are so fearful of the department ... we are a regulatory body,” Vilello said. “We cannot arrest anyone, and we want people to come in on their own and take care of the property.”

By reaching out, Kohl and Vilello said they hope residents will become more likely to work with the DEP instead of thinking of the DEP as a “bad word.”

“We need eyes on the ground,” Vilello said.

Marley Parish reports on local government for the Centre Daily Times. She grew up in Slippery Rock and graduated from Allegheny College.