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Joint Legislative Conservation Committee Environmental Forum: “Water is the Keystone: Regarding the State Water Plan”

Joint Legislative Conservation Committee

12/9/13, 12:00 p.m., Room 8E-A, East Wing

By Mike Howells, PLS

Eric Jespersen, a member of the Pennsylvania Mapping and Geographic Information Consortium (PaMAGIC), offered a presentation to the committee entitled “Water is the Keystone: Regarding the State Water Plan.”

Jespersen said PaMAGIC was created in 1996, and its Water Data Initiative was instituted with the goal of developing a comprehensive and consistent surface water database for the commonwealth. He offered a timeline of the digital and hard copy data used for mapping purposes. Currently, Jespersen said, satellite imagery is taken at a resolution of 1:24,000, with the margin of error being plus or minus 40 feet. He said that is worse than some cell phones can manage, and noted the Marcellus Shale industry has imagery down to hand lengths.

Going back further, Jespersen said the Pennsylvania Water Supply Commission was established in the early 1900s, and the State Inventory Act of 1913 charged the state with making a complete inventory of all the water resources of the commonwealth, and to classify, tabulate, and preserve the same. He went on, noting a large gap of time before the 1960s and 1970s, when Silent Spring was published, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established, and the Joint Conservation Committee instituted in Pennsylvania in 1969.

From 1975 to 1983 the next water plan was conducted, still using hard copy maps. Jespersen noted the second watershed management areas were based much more on county boundaries than watershed areas, unlike the original maps in 1916. He said the water plans “undoubtedly” have driven work plans, but remarked Reagan-era cuts also had an impact. Around this time, Jespersen said, accuracy was roughly1:500,000, far more coarse than current technology.

Jespersen detailed the continuing legislative interest in water management over the years, citing committee reports from 1981 on integrated flood mitigation, a 1987 report on water and sewage infrastructure needs, and reports in the 1990s on watershed protection and drought and resource protection.

Through the 1990s, Jespersen said, the EPA and US Geological Society reached 1:100,000 maps, which included streams. Around that time, both backpack and handheld GPS units became available, with their 50-foot error beating the 150-foot tolerance of the 1:100,000 maps. In addition, GIS development technology allowed overlaying of data on top of maps, driving demand for more mapping data. As a result PaMAGIC was formed in 1996 to develop data standards, with counties leading the way in aerial imagery.

Act 220 of 2002 resulted in data accurate to 1: 24,000, which is the standard still used currently, Jespersen reported. He offered a critique of the law, and said it is a very prescriptive and restrictive measure. He said the law’s requirement that the plan shall be amended and updated every five years was missed.

Speaking to the work of the Water Data Initiative, Jespersen said its objectives include the stipulation that 40 or 50 foot errors are no longer acceptable. He said across the state are instances where drainage is not identified on maps.

Jespersen said “legacy” stream naming systems lead to inaccuracy and may differ between agencies. Additionally he said legislative “quirks” have led to different management of flood plains and stormwater systems, while county-based jurisdictions further lead to complexity.

Jespersen discussed utilizing technology to reduce cost, for example replacing human excursions with drones, and leveraging more satellite technology. Additionally, he said, there are a great number of gauges and sensors across the state that could connect to the internet and communicate with each other and with authorities.

Ultimately, Jespersen said, Pennsylvania can support integrated management of state water. Identifying challenges in the way, he said, agencies and lawmakers fail to look far enough ahead, while regulatory complexity acts as a barrier. Combined with a tough economy, Jespersen said citizens need to become more involved in demanding a better system. Over the next five years, he recommended creating a modern, digital base map for water in Pennsylvania and require agencies and encourage others to transform their data to be compatible with the new map by 2018. He said the cost of $50 million would equate to one bottle of water per citizen, per year, 10 to 15 new Marcellus Shale wells, or a fraction of the transportation infrastructure funds that are available.

Jespersen identified SB 771 and HB 1285 as measures to move through the legislature, and recommended soliciting donations to carry on the work, while also lobbying for budget allocation for the implementation of the Act 220 requirements that have gone undone. He suggested other measures including a fee on bottled water sold in Pennsylvania at a rate of $0.02 per bottle as well as a bond issue or consumptive use fee as proposed in SR 39.

Sen. Hutchinson asked about use of flood plain maps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its impact going forward. Jespersen said the flood insurance program is a federal one, where FEMA generates maps based on data provided by the states. He said the maps include integrated data and are high quality, but advised the program has run out of funding. Jespersen said cities are required to map their stormwater management infrastructure and said it is “not a stretch” to envision all municipalities being required to do so within several decades.

Discussing efforts to enhance to local resolution, Jespersen said New Jersey and Vermont, both smaller states, have move ahead of Pennsylvania.

Tim Weston, chairman of the Statewide Water Resources Committee, said the charge of Act 220 was a large one and not fully delivered on. He spoke to a need for balance between the accuracy of the map and that of the data going into the database. He said officials need to figure out what accuracy is needed to solve the problems that continue to exist and challenge the state.

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