WILLIAMSPORT – Simplify. Simplify. Simplify. That’s what many locals were calling for at the state Department of Environmental Protection’s open house Monday night.
A packed room of roughly 100 government leaders, state and local officials and concerned citizens filled the Mary Lindsay Welch Honors Hall at Lycoming College to discuss best stream water management practices.
“Nobody is really anxious to deal with the permitting process,” acknowledged Marcus Kohl, regional director for DEP, but he said his office works hard to make it as easy as possible for anyone who reaches out.
Simplifying the process
When a tree limb is stuck in the stream and you want to get it out before the next flood, go ahead and do it, Kohl said, just don’t drive a big piece of equipment into the water to get it.
But even with DEP’s attempts to help smooth out the process, for individual homeowners or municipal workers, it’s a struggle to wait for the governmental go-ahead when they see a problem that needs fixing.
Al Boyer, of McIntyre Township, said it’s battling “major bureaucracy that we have to walk through.”
For Jim Dunn, of Armstrong Township, it’s “finding flexibility in policy in order to solve some of these things.” Dunn spoke specifically about the lack of funding locally and statewide to address major flooding events and flood mitigation.
Jerry Walls, of Loyalsock Township, said it’s finding long-term solutions to issues that face the Loyalsock Creek, such as a gravel bar where debris from previous floods is accumulating.
Simplifying the permitting process is what DEP is trying to do, Kohl said. Through its recently introduced “red light, yellow light and green light” model, it aims to identify times when permits are not required, may be required or are required.
Also, for emergency permitting or to file a complaint, Megan Lehman, environmental community relationship specialist, encouraged members of the Northcentral Pennsylvania region to call 570-327-3636 and speak with a local DEP representative.
A controversial funding source
There is no denying the need to garner more funds to combat flooding problems and stream maintenance across the state, Kohl said, adding that the statewide watershed program only receives $500,000 a year to deal with stream issues.
But the question is, “Where will that money come from?”
Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed severance tax on the gas companies is on the table. The tax would be levied against companies, but it sparks debate locally as many believe it will cause the gas industry to decline in Pennsylvania, or cause the price of natural gas to increase.
Commissioner Rick Mirabito championed the severance tax, saying the money has to come from somewhere and it may as well be the gas industry and not property or income tax.
Despite the source of the funding, Commissioner Tony Mussare said the problems aren’t going away.
“We can talk about funding, but until that funding comes, we still have the same problems in our communities,” Mussare said.
He proposed the possibility of “forgiveness” by the state toward local projects that need to be dealt with but that don’t have funding to back them up.
Kohl stressed the emergency permitting option but acknowledged that a number of options need to be discussed since funding is a struggle.
Even with little funding, Dan Vilello, local government liaison with DEP, said counties should work with their planning departments and local municipalities to clean out upstream chokepoints in even a few streams at a time.
Other basic stream maintenance includes cleaning up trash along the banks or in the water, removing wood debris from the streams and leaving the trunk when cutting down trees along the banks to help keep the bank stable.
“If we can get every county in our region to start looking at (chokepoints) and say we save two roads in the next 5-inch rain event, then we’ve had some success,” Vilello said.