Mayors Council votes to table dam option

By Yael Katzwer, Managing Editor West Orange Chronicle
UNION COUNTY — The Mayors Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control unanimously agreed at its April 24 meeting to recommend to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove the proposal of a detention basin in the South Mountain Reservation from its list of possible solutions to stem flooding from the Rahway River.

According to the Rahway River Basin Flood Risk Management Feasibility Study, released to the public by the USACE on March 31, the Rahway River Basin has a drainage area of approximately 81.9 square miles and encompasses Essex, Union and Middlesex counties.

The towns of Cranford, Springfield and Millburn suffered extensive flooding following Tropical Storm Floyd in September 1999, the April 2007 nor’easter and Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. During Tropical Storm Irene, Cranford’s water levels reached the 500-year floodplain; in some areas, entire first floors of buildings were submerged.

Since 1999, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look for solutions to flooding from the Rahway River Basin; during the past few months they have released 10 possible alternatives, or options, for flood abatement — of those 10 alternatives, three were deemed favorable after a benefit-cost analysis.

While the NJDEP and the USACE have not yet decided on a course of action, local officials and residents began to publicly voice their opposition to four of the proposed alternatives — the four alternatives that proposed the building of a dam — approximately 810 feet long and 75 feet high — just upstream of Campbell’s Pond in the South Mountain Reservation, which would create an approximately 1-mile long, 110-acre detention basin that, when flooded, could take about four days to empty. The reservation is located in Maplewood, West Orange and Millburn, and borders South Orange.

Both the South Orange Board of Trustees and the Maplewood Township Committee passed unanimous resolutions against the construction of a dam, and state assembly members John McKeon and Mila Jasey, who represent the 27th District, sent a letter to the NJDEP asking it not to consider the building of a dam as a viable option. Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. also issued a press statement opposing the dam. Community members and environmentalists formed Save Our Reservation, an organization that is working in concert with the Rahway Alternative Flood Solutions Alliance and the South Mountain Conservancy, to oppose the alternative.

But, according to an April 27 release from the Mayors Council, the council voted unanimously to take the dam option off of the table and is asking USACE to look more closely at the other two alternatives that had a positive benefit-cost analysis. The two remaining alternatives are modifying the Orange Reservoir outlet and elevating existing structures in Cranford to better withstand flooding.

“The recent decision narrowed the list of priority projects to two, including the lifting or acquisition of the most affected homes in the flood damaged areas,” the Mayors Council release read. “The Mayors recommended to the U.S. Army Corps to set to the side the proposed controversial South Mountain Regional Detention Basin in favor of the Orange Reservoir modification.”

“The South Mountain Conservancy and RAFSA are quite pleased that the Mayors Council has unanimously recommended that the corps no longer consider the construction of a dam and detention basin in the reservation,” Dennis Percher, chairman of the South Mountain Conservancy board of trustees, told the Chronicle this week via email.

“This agrees with our own analysis and position, expressed to the corps, that it was barely feasible economically, politically unsupportable and would irrevocably destroy a key area of the park.

“We look forward to working with the council on the recommended alternatives, specifically the creation of outlets at the existing Orange Reservoir and channel work in Cranford, so a regional flood abatement solution can be further developed and eventually implemented.”

Former Maplewood Mayor Fred Profeta, chairman of Save Our Reservation, is quick to point out that not only officials opposed the dam, but residents as well. SOR began a petition asking USACE to set aside the alternatives proposing the construction of the dam; as of now, the petition has more than 5,000 signatures.

“My argument last Thursday was that the dam option would never be implemented in face of all the political and public opposition and that it would cause enormous environmental damage for which there would need to be compensation,” Profeta, who sits on the Mayors Council, told the West Orange Chronicle this week via email.

“If the Mayors Council kept the dam option on the table, I said, it would take an enormous amount of time to analyze completely, because it implicated historical, recreational, economic and threatened species issues, in addition to purely environmental issues. At the end of the day, there was a real danger that pursuit of the dam option would result in no flood mitigation, and affected municipalities would have wasted years, during which there could be more damaging floods.”

Representatives of the NJDEP and the USACE previously told the Chronicle that the recommendations of local politicians and residents would carry weight in their final decision.