CRANFORD – Anyone hinging all their hopes on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers solving the flooding woes in the Rahway River basin better not hold their breath. It could be five years before they would be able to move on any project.
Not to mention the federal government did not include any funding to continue with the process this year or in the 2015 budget.
Last week the Army Corps and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection held two informational public meetings in Cranford on May 28 and in Millburn on May 29. The purpose was to bring residents living in the 81-square-mile basin area, which includes Union, Essex and Middlesex counties, up to date on where the Army Corps stands with any potential project for the future.
The news, though, was not what many expected to hear. Especially because financing for the feasibility study during the next two to three years has not been allocated. However, the Corps is continuing work on the feasibility study thanks to funding left over from 2013.
According to Army Corps District Engineer Joe Seebode, who moderated the two forums, the project investigative process was only funded to the end of last year, with no funding allocated in the 2014 or 2015 federal budget.
This was backed up by information released by the Army Corps late last month which explained that while the Army Corps team is continuing to work on three of the ten alternatives presented in the Rahway River Basin Flood Risk Management Feasibility Study released March 31, money is running out.
Although the South Mountain Reservation alternative has been referred to as a detention basin by the Army Corps, at the Cranford meeting Seebode used the word “dam” to describe the option of the 810-foot long and 75-foot high structure to hold back floodwaters.
The proposed dam-like structure would create a mile-long, 110-acre basin that, when flooded, would hold back floodwaters until slowly released in order to stop the downstream impact of major storms.
Seebode also made it clear this particular alternative was not yet off the table, regardless whether the Mayor’s Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control unanimously agreed to recommend to the Army Corps that this alternative be removed from further consideration.
“The three alternatives,” the deputy district engineer said, referring to the dam, channel work and new outlet at Orange Reservoir and non-structural work in Cranford such as raising homes and removing homes from the flood area, “are all still in discussion.” However, he did admit, this particular option had resulted in the Army Corps receiving “many, many” letters and emails from those opposed to such a dam being constructed in the reservation.
“The South Mountain detention basin, or dam, is extremely controversial,” he told the Cranford audience, adding that regardless what anyone heard, the Army Corps had a process to go through.
“There is a dynamic here – and a public democratic process is part of that dynamic,” Seebode said, explaining that he could not tell those attending the meeting which alternative they were looking closely at.
“I’m not going to say which one it will be because we have to go through an objective process of elimination.”
A contingent of those opposed to the dam was present at the Cranford meeting and while they did not approach the microphone during the public portion, prior to the meeting several told those in attendance that the “Save Our Reservation” effort remained in full force.
The group produced a two-sided color flier pointing out that a dam will “trap 3.4 million tons of water during a large storm, less than a mile from downtown Millburn.”
Among the other things listed on the flier was that a dam, or detention basin, would kill vegetation and create a “dead zone” for more than a mile from Campbell’s pond to north of Hemlock Falls. They stressed such a dam, while designed to eliminate flooding in Cranford, would actually only trap or contain 22 percent of water destined to reach this flood plagued municipality.
“A dam would eliminate a beautiful river valley and endanger a rare wild ecosystem in Essex County that contains threatened species and forms the recreational and historical heart of the Reservation,” the flier pointed out, also noting that $10 million of the initial construction cost of the dam would have to be met by local municipalities.
On the other side of the issue are thousands of residents and business owners in Cranford who suffered more than $1 billion in damages from Tropical Storm Irene. Towns like Cranford and Rahway have been especially hard hit by storms like Irene because floodwaters come barreling down from the 31-mile drainage basin to the north of the township.
These storm waters come from South Orange, West Orange, Millburn, Maplewood and Springfield, along with sections of Union and Mountainside.
While there are many facets to alleviating flooding downstream, the financial end of any project presents a major stumbling block. Regardless which alternative is selected, finding the money for a multi-million dollar flood project is not going to be entirely on the shoulders of the federal government.
According to the Army Corps, 65 percent of any project, regardless the cost, will come from federal aid, if approved by congress and that remains entirely up in the air at this point in time. The state, if approved by the legislature, will have to pitch in 25 percent, and the balance funded by local municipalities, if approved.
So far local towns, including Cranford, have not addressed how they would fund their end of such a project. However, there is a history of how Army Corps projects turned out in Cranford.
The total cost of any of the alternatives would be anywhere from $15 million to $230 million.
In 2002 the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection agreed with the Army Corps study recommendations for Cranford, and actually signed a feasibility cost plan to share the financial burden, but that later fell by the wayside when the legislature failed to approve further funding for the $10 million needed to continue the remaining three phases of the flood project.
Will it be the same old story this time around? According to Seebode, it could be.
At this point, no one, not even the Army Corps, had an answer to what will happen in the future, but they are continuing to move forward until the money runs out.
Seebode explained that despite needing $2.4 million to complete the feasibility study, the Corps will continue to work with the NJDEP, a non-federal sponsor, using 2013 “carryover money” to ensure the alternatives are narrowed down further. However, work on this will come to an end at some point.
“Eventually, work will be suspended once the funds run out,” according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New York District Project Manager Rifat Salin, who indicated in a release sent out by the Army Corps in late May that carryover funds will also be used to pay for public information sessions taking place in May and later in June.
Seebode said funding is always an issue with any flood project the Army corps undertakes. He also dropped a bombshell when he told the audience “it could be three to five years” before the completion of the Rahway River basin feasibility study and eventually putting this type of a major expenditure before Congress for approval. Even then, there are no promises.
“I can’t guarantee to you as a representative of Army Corps that the project will be funded,” the district engineer told the audience at the Cranford meeting, adding “do we have funding issues? Yes we do, but I’m hopeful by 2016 we will have the study complete.”
“We are developing a tentatively selected plan relatively soon,” Seebode told the Cranford audience of 200 people, pointing out the next step will be “developing a detailed level of analysis.” But, he also warned that even if congress approves a flood project for the Rahway River basin, it could take years before it is completed.
“Depending which alternative is selected, it could take a year to six years,” Seebode explained, explaining that everything the Army Corps does is done in “phases.”
One person attending the meeting questioned this, asking what would happen if the Army Corps started a flood project and ran out of funding.
“What are the safeguards? The last project ran out of money,” said a resident of Cranford, bringing up the five-phase flood project embarked upon in 2001 in the township that never was completed.
“Unfortunately the legislature did not appropriate the money,” Seebode said, but did not elaborate more.
Seebode said the Army Corps is committed to completing the feasibility study now in progress, but admitted that could take “at least two more years to complete.”
The Army Corps engineer also went into how additional evaluation and study is needed to determine the hydrology and hydraulics of a flood project, along with the real cost and economic justification.
Also included in the feasibility study is the environmental impact, and the “social consequences,” which includes community impact and displacement of recreational opportunities.
Despite all that needs to be completed, the Army Corps deputy district engineer stressed it was their intention “to complete a feasibility study in the next two to three years and present it to congress.”
“I’m not going to say which one of the alternatives it will be because we have to go through an objective process of elimination,” he added.
Seebode also pointed out that regardless what alternative they select, nothing can completely solve the flooding problems experienced by those living in the lower basin.
“No flood risk management project can eliminate flooding. It can only reduce the frequency and severity and provide additional time to respond prior to flooding impact,” he said.
Of the 10 alternatives the Army Corps came up with, Seebode mentioned the non-structural flood project showed the greatest cost benefit ratio of all 10 proposed projects.
For example, he said, the non-structural solution, which included raising or completely removing homes impacted by flood waters, would show the most cost to benefit ratio at 1.4.
When compared to the detention basin at a 1.0 ratio or channel work and a new outlet at Orange reservoir with a 1.3 cost to benefit ratio, it’s undeniable.
However, there was a downside.
“The problem is we can only address 72 structures with the non-structural alternative and getting to the 750 homes that need this help is a pretty expensive deal,” the deputy district engineer said.
“It’s not a perfect system,” Seebode said, but stressed the cost to benefit ratio will play a critical part in selecting the right plan.