New Jersey has not adequately addressed the issue of flooding and the protection of important water resources in our state. As a result, flooding in certain parts of New Jersey continue to occur every time we experience heavy rains. Heavy rains this weekend again caused flooding in some of those problem areas, including Green Brook.
Our hearts and helping hands go out to all the people of New Jersey who have been impacted by the most recent floods. As the flood waters recede, the Sierra Club believes we need to examine the policies and programs of our state when it comes to flooding. Nature may bring the rains, but overdevelopment and bad government policies make the floods worse.
Man-made structures and flood control projects have not been successful in addressing the problem. New Jersey wastes hundreds of millions of dollars on ineffective flood control measures when it is much cheaper, safer, and better for the environment to simply remove people from harm's way. We believe New Jersey must look at a range of ways to deal with the problem of flooding. Unfortunately we haven't, and the problem of flooding in New Jersey has gotten worse.
The Green Brook Flood Control Project, as it is currently designed, would have failed had it been in operation during Hurricane Floyd and has only succeeded in making flooding worse in other areas along the Raritan River. In 1999, the Club estimated that the 200 most flood-prone properties in Bound Brook could have been purchased for less than $25 million. Instead, over $100 million has been spent on a flood control project that doesn't bring people out of harm's way and has only increased flooding.
Now, with no end in site, Bound Brook has been flooded yet again. Instead of costly and ineffective Flood Control Projects, the most flood prone properties should be purchased and the flood plane should be restored. Fill and buildings should be removed. Construction of dikes and other stream channelization projects do not provide a solution to flooding, but rather move storm water downstream faster, raising water levels in other areas.
This weekend's storm also caused flooding in other parts of New Jersey, including the Ramapo and the Passaic. We should have applied the same lessons there: remove people from harms way, restore the flood plane, and limit development in upstream and headwater areas. In 1999, the Sierra Club estimated that for less than $10 million we could have bought most of the flood prone homes and restored those wetlands and riparian lands that would have helped prevent flooding downstream. Instead, a $30 million dollar Army Corps Flood Project in Ramapo has not worked and has caused increased flooding in Pompton Lakes.
The failure of New Jersey to finish buyouts in Hoffman Grove and adequately address flooding in places like Mountain View and Wayne, have resulted in these places again being underwater.
Even though this weekend's storm wasn't biggest storm on record, we're seeing some of the worse flooding on record in the Passaic Basin due to overdevelopment. The more we overdevelop near the river, the higher the waters rise.
"As long as we keep allowing overdevelopment in the Raritan Basin, flood walls high enough to meet the level of flood waters from downstream cannot be constructed. We're better off removing people from harm's way than spending money on gold plated projects. That's the lesson of both New Orleans and the Mississippi," NJ Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said.
The typical forested acre of land will soak up to three inches of water, saving more then a million gallons per acre of downstream flooding. Every time we pave over the forest, we send more waters downstream and put people in harms way.
"Continuing to allow more and more development in flood prone areas is the def of insanity: doing the same things over and expecting a different outcome," Tittel said. "New Jersey has seen five major floods in the last 10 years. It's time for New Jersey to take a holistic approach in dealing with flooding."
Instead of costly and ineffective flood control projects, the Sierra Club makes the following recommendations on how best to deal with flooding:
Eliminate the Loophole for Redevelopment
Currently, redevelopment projects are exempt from New Jersey's storm water and flood hazard rules. As we redevelop a state with as much development as New Jersey, we must not miss our one chance to fix the problems of the past. Unless we eliminate this loophole and allow for retrofitting of storm water systems and limiting impervious cover on these sites, no matter what else we may do, flooding will continue to get worse.
Update Maps of Flood Hazard Areas
Many of the maps are thirty years old and some parts of the state do not have maps. Many more people are living in flood prone areas because these maps are so out of date. Without knowledge of where these areas are, we are allowing more development and putting more people in harm's way. The new maps should take into consideration increased flooding and sea level rise due to global warming.
Eliminate Loopholes that Destroy Headwaters of Sensitive Streams
Most prevalent is the loophole where the state does not have jurisdiction to protect stream drainages smaller than 50 acres. However, it is just these drainage areas that are the most sensitive and crucial to protecting water quality. Once you lose the high quality waters at the headwaters, the rest of the stream suffers.
Expand Funding for Blue Acres
This would be state funding, similar to Green Acres, to acquire properties, remove structures, and restore flood plains to their natural state. This is a critical program that would help residents who want to relocate out of flood plains.
Incorporate Hazard Planning
The state has to incorporate hazard planning into all agencies of government. The concept of hazard planning is such that the state should not spend resources or promote growth in areas that are subject to chronic flooding. We should not allow new people to be put into harm's way.
Develop Impervious Cover Limits
In order to address the chronic flooding that has occurred in New Jersey, the state needs to develop impervious cover limits in flood-prone watersheds. Impervious cover includes buildings, pavement, and lawns, which do not absorb storm water.
Limit Development in Flood Plains
Building in flood plains creates more flooding and puts more people's lives and properties at risk. The increase in impervious cover eliminates recharge areas and therefore stricter limits on new development in flood plains should be immediately imposed. There should be zero net fill and no new structures in flood plains.
Implement Stricter Protections for Natural Stream Corridor Vegetation
These vegetative corridors perform important functions by filtering pollution before it reaches the stream and preventing flooding by absorbing more waters. The current practice of mowing the corridor allows runoff to rush into the waters carrying pollutants from roads and fields and increases downstream flooding.
Implement Category One Anti-degradation Requirements
These requirements should be incorporated into the new rules. The same regulations for crossing streams and allowing for new development should not apply to the state's most sensitive environmental areas where stronger standards are warranted. The outstanding basin water designation should be strengthened to be the equivalent of Category One protection waters in New Jersey and then adopted for the Delaware River basin above Trenton and its tributaries.
Develop basin-wide flood mitigation. Plan to help lessen the impact of flooding on already existing developed neighborhoods. Develop non-structural mechanisms to help diminish the impact of flooding on these communities.
We need to better manage our water resources in the region, especially reservoirs, to mitigate flooding, help prevent drought, and maintain the ecological integrity of the river. We need to ensure that there is capacity in our reservoirs to help deal with flooding, but enough water to mitigate drought, and prevent the salt water line on the Delaware River from moving up.
We cannot manage our water without managing our land. We need to do a better job of preventing development from creating more floods. Currently there is no regional planning entity for the Delaware River Basin. We believe the Delaware River Basin Commission should have land use powers. We also believe that the four-state region along the basin needs to develop strong regional planning to help prevent overdevelopment from causing more flooding.
Jeff Tittel is director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.