Fishing Creek’s headwaters are located on the edge of the Appalachian Plateau — approximately 2,200 feet above sea level. The creek flows down Columbia County’s mountainous northern State Game Lands #13 and then cuts through the forested county until it reaches Bloomsburg, where it joins the Susquehanna River. This steep drop in elevation causes the stream to have high energy flows during rain events, making Fishing Creek susceptible to unpredictable flooding, which has only gotten worse over the last couple of years.
Historically, many of the streams in Columbia County had a milldam, used to harness hydroelectric power. By 1840, Columbia County had 130 water-powered mills, but most of them were abandoned by the 1990s due to the use of fossil fuels for electricity. Abandoned milldams cause fine sediments to accumulate at the end of the dam, leading to a vertical build-up of “legacy sediments” that push the stream out of its floodplain and increase the risk of flooding. Benton and other towns along Fishing Creek have suffered the dire consequences of severe flooding every year, particularly in 2018 and the Christmas of 2020. When there are heavy rainstorms in Central Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Mountains, counties in the Susquehanna Lowlands have serious issues managing stormwater runoff and stream overflow.
Columbia County’s flooding issues have been heavily underfunded, in part because addressing the problem at its core involves identifying and removing abandoned milldams and their legacy sediments, both of which are very costly endeavors. The process requires conducting a land study to locate buried milldams, removing tons of legacy sediments, lowering the streambank, and determining where to best dispose of the material. Although getting rid of legacy sediments is expensive, the cost of undertaking these projects and reconnecting the stream to its floodplain is significantly lower than the cost of flood emergency response and property recovery.
Removing milldams from specific stream sections is not the only way to reduce flooding in the Fishing Creek Watershed. A watershed-level approach to Columbia County’s water problems is ideal. Starting restoration at the headwaters and working downstream would reduce stormwater runoff in the lowlands and minimize the risk of project failure due to unpredictable flooding. More importantly, a watershed-level approach would bring multiple other benefits to the region. Wetland restoration helps store immense amounts of water, while the reintroduction of native vegetation along streams stabilizes stream banks and reduces erosion. Preserving forested areas and local habitats is also beneficial as it frees up space for the stream when it needs it. Moreover, restoring the watershed would mitigate flooding and ensure clean water for Bloomsburg, which gets most of its drinking water from the Fishing Creek Watershed.
Communities along Fishing Creek are unpredictably flooded every year, endangering their safety, homes, and livelihoods. The costs of inaction are vast, and those who are forced to rebuild their homes every year or cannot afford to move outside of the floodplain are disproportionately affected. Funding projects that address flooding is imperative. Doing so today will be distinctly more economical than a couple of years down the road when the frequency of flooding is projected to increase.