Credit: (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
File photo: Part of a stormwater system under construction in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015

NJ Spotlight News recently hosted a roundtable on New Jersey’s often-disastrous storm flooding and the challenges of stormwater management in many of our communities.

As part of the discussion, we invited our audience to submit questions for the panelists, an invitation that brought in far more questions than we could ask in the 90-minute program. Afterward, we picked out a few of the most interesting questions and sent them to the panelists to see if they could answer. Here are some excerpts.

Q: What New Jersey municipalities have successfully created stormwater municipal authorities? How long have they operated and are fees adequate to address the “itsy-bitsy creek?”

At this time, several municipalities are exploring the concept of fee-based stormwater utilities, but none have adopted an implementing ordinance. This process often takes more than a year from start to finish. Western Kentucky University publishes an annual report about stormwater utilities elsewhere in the country.Daniel J. Van Abs, PhD, FAICP/PP, Professor of Professional Practice for Water, Society and Environment Department of Human Ecology, Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences

As of this writing, several municipalities are conducting assessments to determine if creating a municipal stormwater utility is right for them. The legislation authorizing the creation of local stormwater utilities was signed into law in New Jersey in 2019. Once the global COVID-19 pandemic broke out, implementation has been a little delayed. ANJEC is a founding member of the Flood Defense coalition, a group of New Jersey nonprofits working to provide municipalities, counties, and other regional entities the tools and resources they need to evaluate if a stormwater utility is right for them and how to implement such. The New Jersey tormwater Utility Resource Center has case studies, newsletters, presentations from consultants that helped municipalities in neighboring states adopt stormwater utilities, a model ordinance, and more.Jennifer M. Coffey, Executive Director, Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC)

NJDEP is not aware of any New Jersey municipality that has created a stormwater utility. To assist willing local governments, NJDEP has published Stormwater Utility Guidance, which is available here.  — Shawn M. LaTourette, Commissioner, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP)

Q: In a time of increased flooding risk due to the climate crisis, do private companies have a responsibility to the state to reduce impervious surface and/or prevent impervious surface from being built, i.e., by building/developing less land and/or not selling property to developers who will reduce pervious surface? Or is this yet one more thing that must be legislated at the local level via ordinance? 

See the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but should be regulated by local zoning. — Sen. Robert Smith (D-Middlesex), chair of Senate Environment and Energy Committee

Land developers will respond to market forces and government regulations. Municipalities can use zoning codes, and site plan and subdivision ordinances, to control lot coverage by buildings and total impervious cover. Reducing impervious cover can be required for some types of redevelopment projects in the same manner, but more common are requirements to improve stormwater control, such as controlling the first inch or 1.5 inches of runoff from a developed or redeveloped site. Municipalities must take care to avoid conflicts with the Residential Site Improvement Standards, which establish statewide maximum requirements for residential subdivisions.  Van Abs

Unfortunately, unless a municipality, county, or some other regional entity has adopted a stormwater utility, there is no requirement to reduce impervious cover (asphalt, roof runoff, sidewalks, etc.) from pre-existing development. New Jersey’s stormwater rules are designed to try to keep flooding from getting worse from new development. As one of the 13 original colonies, however, New Jersey has a lot of old development. This is why it is so critical to get stormwater utilities up and running in New Jersey. Additionally, the  Department of Environmental Protection can and should include requirements for stormwater management for redevelopment projects so that we can begin to correct problems created by past development before we had robust stormwater rules put in place in 2005 — centuries after New Jersey began to develop. Coffey

Private companies must comply with the applicable land resource protection rules, including those pertaining to stormwater management and flood hazards. More information on the applicable rules is available from the DEP’s Division of Land Resource Protection. – LaTourette

Q: Is there something the state can do to make stormwater utilities easier to create, or perhaps  share case studies from successful models?

New Jersey Future has created a website, the New Jersey Stormwater Utility Resource Center, with good information about the utility planning process. It has a lot of good information. One critical point is that the creation of a fee-based stormwater utility is most successful when community agreement has been reached that a significant stormwater problem exists, that the solution and cost is known, and that a fee-based utility is the most equitable and cost-effective method to fund the local share. Van Abs

ANJEC is a founding member of the Flood Defense coalition, a group of New Jersey nonprofits working to provide municipalities, counties, and other regional entities the tools and resources they need to evaluate if a stormwater utility is right for them and how to implement such. The Stormwater Utility Resource Center has case studies, newsletters, presentations from consultants that helped municipalities in neighboring states adopt stormwater utilities, a model ordinance, peer-to-peer learning exchange, and more. We would love if the state of New Jersey would help promote these resources.  Coffey

Q: Which areas in NJ are most vulnerable to flooding?

There are different types of flooding. The NJ Flood Mapper tool from Rutgers provides a lot of useful information on potential flood areas from coastal and riverine flooding. However, street flooding can be caused by inadequate or poorly maintained stormwater or combined sewer infrastructure that backs up into streets, basements, etc. The municipal public works and engineering offices are likely the best source of information. Municipal Environmental Resource Inventories or Water Stories (part of the Sustainable Jersey certification program) can also be useful.  Van Abs

In truth, it’s most of New Jersey at varying degrees of severity. The coast is certainly at particular risk from both sea level rise and subsidence (slowly sinking tectonic plates). Any and all areas near rivers, lakes, ponds, creeks, and streams are subject to increasing flooding over the next 30 years. Beyond that, the models show that if we rapidly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions now, we may be able to keep flooding from getting exponentially worse. Both coastal and inland areas of New Jersey are subject to flooding from large storms — hurricanes and tropical storms — coming further north than they have before because they are fueled by a warmer ocean.

Those who are often first and worst-hit are communities of color, low-income, and with residents who speak English as a second language. These are communities who often reside historically along the waterfront, have fewer resources to support infrastructure improvements, and are often politically marginalized. As we work to implement the new Environmental Justice Law, we need to expand the premise of it to municipal leadership and examine how local land-use decisions have contributed to the continuance of overburdened communities, elevate those community voices, and implement equitable solutions.  Coffey

After Ida, everywhere is vulnerable.  Smith

Q: Are grants available for improving stormwater infrastructure? 

DEP offers both grants and low-interest financing to improve stormwater infrastructure. See the most recent grant solicitation for nonpoint source pollution improvements here. Stormwater infrastructure improvements are also a focus of the Water Infrastructure Investment Plan presently in development, for which information is available here. LaTourette

There is approximately $5 billion slated to come to New Jersey over the next five years through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Most of this money will be managed through the New Jersey Water Bank, a program of the NJDEP. I sincerely hope that significant funds are dedicated to improving stormwater infrastructure with an emphasis on green infrastructure since there are so many co-benefits, including community beautification, pollution removal, pollinator habitat, as well as flood reduction. Coffey

Q: Based on the changing climate and the large number of catastrophic storms, will the criteria for 100-year floods be modified?

DEP recently released two studies confirming increases in precipitation across New Jersey over the last 20 years and projecting further increases in precipitation intensity through the end of this century due to climate change. More information about these studies is available here. DEP is currently in the process of developing its Resilient Environments and Landscapes (REAL) regulatory proposal, which will modernize environmental land use rules to respond to climate change by better considering risks such as sea level rise, increased precipitation, and chronic flooding. For more information on the REAL reforms, go to LaTourette

This is really a question for the NJDEP, but as someone who has served on their stakeholder groups talking about this for years, the DEP has the data in hand to use climate change modeling to make more accurate calculations for the 100-year storm, the 100-year flood, and the stormwater volume calculations for other storms including 50-, 10-, and two-year storms. Because of the climate crisis, we know that the past is no longer a predictor of the future, so we cannot continue to use old data to make land-use decisions when the lives, homes, and business of New Jersey residents depend on us using better data. Unfortunately, all the data shows that storms are going to continue to increase in intensity in New Jersey, so we need to be smarter, not just stronger.  Coffey

Q: How does warehouse sprawl contribute to heightened flood risks and what can concerned residents do about this? 

Major developments for warehousing must comply with applicable stormwater and flood hazard area regulations. Concerned residents may contact their local planning and zoning boards with respect to specific applications under review, and may contact the DEP where environmental permits are sought or required. Concerned residents are encouraged to consult the DEP Bulletin, a bi-monthly compendium of construction permit applications recently filed or acted upon by DEP. LaTourette

This is a huge issue for many areas of New Jersey. We know that current stormwater rules are, in theory, supposed to require that pre- and post-development runoff calculations for development are equal. In other words, no more water is supposed to run off a property after it is developed than did so before it was developed. However, because we are using data that dates back 100 years for rainfall and flooding, and because we know that with the climate crisis, the past is no longer a predictor of the future, we need the NJDEP to release new stormwater and flood hazard area protection act rules using climate change modeling data immediately. This will give municipalities the science they need to update local laws and protect their residents. Concerned residents can contact Gov. Murphy and Commissioner LaTourette, join their local environmental commissions, and attend ANJEC training on stormwater to learn how to encourage the adoption of stronger local ordinances. ANJEC training is viewable at the ANJEC Views YouTube Channel.  Coffey

Q: Is there funding available to reinforce roofs to support rooftop gardens?

Certain green roof projects could be eligible for funding for NJDEP Watershed Restoration Grants — see the most recent grant solicitation. Applications for these grants are due Feb. 28, 2022.  LaTourette

Q: It would help if Blue Acres money could be used for commercial properties. These properties have larger impervious footprint than single-family houses and are typically larger parcels.

Blue Acres has traditionally been focused on the buyout of repeatedly damaged residential properties as a function of the parameters of federal funding that has motivated such buyouts.  LaTourette

Q: Is there someone at the DEP who neighborhood advocacy groups could contact to get local-level help? Not just more programs that elected officials hijack.

DEP’s Office of Community & Local Government Assistance is available as a resource to neighborhood and community associations. Those in need of assistance may contact  LaTourette

Q: How do towns allow building on every square inch of space when we know our infrastructure is already inadequate? How does the NJDEP not stop it? For example, in Weehawken — and other towns in Hudson and Bergen counties — buildings are going up within feet of the Hudson River in areas that have already flooded.

Municipalities are required to ensure compliance with DEP’s Stormwater Management Rule in reviewing and approving major development. Local governments must also comply with requirements established by the National Flood Insurance Program and the DEP, including in the development of Flood Plain Ordinances. Certain development within flood plains is also subject to DEP regulation and permitting under the Flood Hazard Area Control Act. To better support New Jersey communities in building their resilience to extreme weather and flooding, DEP is in the process of developing Resilient Environments and Landscapes (REAL) reforms that will modernize the flood hazard and stormwater management rules. Find more information on the REAL reforms here.  LaTourette

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