Mayor’s Council votes down controversial ‘dam’ alternative

The Cranford Municipal Building was under several feet of water and not usable for weeks. Right: North Avenue in Cranford was under several feet of water.
The Cranford Municipal Building was under several feet of water and not usable for weeks. Right: North Avenue in Cranford was under several feet of water.
Flood waters in Cranford during Tropical Storm Irene caused more than $100 million in damages to homes and businesses.  The Mayors Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control continues to pursure options to alleviate flooding, but has decided against one controversial proposa
Flood waters in Cranford during Tropical Storm Irene caused more than $100 million in damages to homes and businesses. The Mayors Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control continues to pursure options to alleviate flooding, but has decided against one controversial proposa
Garbage filled yards throughout Cranford in the days after the water receeded
Garbage filled yards throughout Cranford in the days after the water receeded

UNION COUNTY — The controversial proposal to create a dam and detention basin in the South Mountain Reservation to alleviate Rahway River flooding has had a hard time finding support from anyone.

The Mayors Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control has labored long and hard since 2011 to bring flood control to residents living along the Rahway River.

To ensure this mission continues to move forward, the group backed a plan that includes ten proposed “alternatives” that included a dam-like structure in South Mountain Reservation in Essex County that caused a firestorm of controversy and objections.

But based on many objections, which came not only from those living near the reservation located in Maplewood, West Orange and Millburn, but also the South Orange Board of Trustees and Maplewood Township Committee, the mayor’s council decided to back down on supporting the construction of a proposed mile-long dam-like structure and 10-acre detention basin in the reservation in favor of one of the other alternatives.

Confusing is the Army Corps had yet to make a decision on which of the ten options they supported, merely that there were two that stood out from ten alternative solutions. This included a detention basin in the reservation at a cost of $108.4 million and modifications to the Orange Reservoir at a cost of $68.8 million.

These alternatives came to light when the Army Corps presented their Rahway River Basin Flood Risk Management Feasibility Study released to the public March 31.

The Rahway River basin has a drainage area of 81.9 miles, encompassing Essex, Union and Middlesex counties with the potential for flooding in Cranford and Rahway having the most impact on residents living adjacent to the Rahway River.

The Army Corps backed up their study with a statement a little more than a week later which specifically pointed out that both the Army Corps and NJDEP were “currently evaluating several flood risk management alternatives,” and these “preliminary findings” would be shared with residents at two public information sessions in late May or early June.

The Army Corps repeatedly did note that if a detention basin was the option selected, it would not be a dam but rather a “dry” basin only containing water in the event of a flood.

However the Army Corps stressed that flood relief solutions for the towns downstream was an ongoing project and no decisions had been made.

“No single alternative has been selected for construction at this point and the study is ongoing,” the Army Corps indicated pointing out what could possibly be one of the determining factors in that decision.

“Narrowing the alternatives will be partly based on the comparisons of benefits and costs between different plans that were developed by the Army Corps of Engineers,” they said, noting the selection of an alternative was just the beginning of a long process.

“The study must undergo further analysis before a Tentatively Selected Plan can be chosen,” the Army Corps said. “Alternatives selected for further analysis will be further evaluated to formally assess potential environmental and cultural impacts through field investigations.”

The Army Corps also pointed out that this not only follows the National Environmental Policy Act, but also will further refine the particulars of each flood risk management element.

There is one other component that is critical to moving forward with any flood management project and the Army corps mentioned this in the last line of their release.

“Completion of the study is also dependent upon future federal funding,” they said.
Despite this, opposition continued to mount, with the Maplewood and West Orange governing bodies eventually passing unanimous resolutions against the building of a “dam.” State assembly members representing the 27th district also sent a letter to the NJDEP requesting a dam not be considered as a flooding solution.

Adding further fuel to this runaway train was Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. announced last month that he did not support the building of a dam in the reservation.

He subsequently sent a letter to the Army Corps asking that they look into other options for flood control downstream and issued a press statement opposing the dam.

Meanwhile environmentalists formed a Save Our Reservation organization that began working with the Rahway Alternative Flood Alliance and South Mountain Conservancy to oppose the alternative of a dam.

Based on these objections, and the likelihood this could take the focus off flood control, former Cranford Mayor Dan Aschenbach, who started the mayor’s council in 2011 after Tropical Storm Irene devastated Cranford, decided something had to be done to stop this runaway train.

On April 24 the council voted unanimously to take the dam option off the table and requested the Army Corps to “set to the side the proposed controversial South Mountain Regional Detention Basin in favor of the Orange Reservoir modification.”
“The strong support for what is known as ‘alternative 4’ from the Army Corps study is a positive step,” Aschenbach said.

The two alternatives were modifying the Orange Reservoir outlet and elevating existing structures in Cranford to better withstand flooding. The mayor’s council determined that the benefit cost ratio of this modification of the reservoir and channel improvements developed by the Army Corps “was significant enough to warrant being a priority project that will help reduce flooding.”

“The project includes constructing two new outlets at the Orange Reservoir in the reservation and a new protocol about releasing storm water to create reservoir capacity,” Aschenbach explained, adding the project also includes channel improvements in Cranford to deepen river bed and restore banks. A water storage project is also being considered in Rahway.

The towns of Cranford, Springfield, Rahway and Millburn suffered extensive flooding flowing Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999 and again in the April 2007 nor’easter. When Tropical Storm Irene hit the area in August 2011, it left Cranford with $100 million in damages after water levels reached the 500-year floodplain. Many homes were condemned and more than a thousand received extensive flooding.