Mayors Council reports progress in flood abatement efforts for the Rahway River

By Yael Katzwer, Managing Editor West Orange Chronicle
UNION COUNTY — The long slog to implement a flood mitigation plan for the Rahway River is moving along, former Cranford Mayor Dan Aschenbach, who started the Mayors Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control, told the West Orange Chronicle earlier this week via email.

According to Aschenbach, the Mayors Council recently met with Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., who expressed support for a plan to modify the Orange Reservoir, allowing it to hold more stormwater during peak storm conditions, as long as the alterations protect county facilities and benefit downstream communities, such as Millburn and Maplewood. The Mayors Council plans to meet with Orange officials in the coming months. Additionally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Environmental Protection are still studying this plan.

The Mayors Council was formed after Tropical Storm Irene to find solutions to flooding from Millburn to Rahway. The towns represented include Millburn, Maplewood, Springfield, Orange, Union, Kenilworth, Cranford, Garwood, Winfield Park and Rahway.

This news is likely to be well-received by county residents, especially in West Orange, many of whom vocally opposed a previous controversial plan to build a detention basin in the South Mountain Reservation. Local groups like Save Our Reservation and the Rahway Alternative Flood Solutions Alliance were formed to fight the proposed plan.

While the NJDEP and the USACE had not yet decided on a course of action, local officials and residents had been publicly voicing their opposition to Alternative 6. The South Orange Board of Trustees and the Maplewood Township Committee had both passed unanimous resolutions against the construction of a dam; Assembly members Mila Jasey and John McKeon, and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., among others, voiced their disapproval.

In response to the public outcry and other factors, an NJDEP official sent a letter July 17 to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers taking the dam option off the table. The proposed dam would have cut across the west branch of the Rahway River to create an approximately mile-long, 110-acre detention basin that, when flooded, could take approximately three to four days to empty. The reservation is located in Maplewood, West Orange and Millburn, and borders South Orange.

Since 1999, the NJDEP has been working with the USACE on solutions to flooding from the Rahway River Basin. 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 Hurricane Floyd in September 1999, the April 2007 nor’easter, and Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. During Irene, Cranford’s water levels reached the 500-year floodplain; in some areas, entire first floors of buildings were submerged.

In an effort to help these municipalities, on March 31 the NJDEP and the Army Corps released a list of 10 possible alternatives, or options, for flood abatement. Shortly thereafter, due to a benefit-cost analysis, those 10 alternatives were narrowed down to three : Alternatives 4, 6 and 7a.

Alternative 4 proposes modifying the Orange Reservoir outlet and completing 15,500 feet of channel improvements throughout the Rahway River in Cranford, among other improvements; this alternative would cost $68,871,200. Alternative 6 proposes the construction of the dam in the South Mountain Reservation just upstream of Campbell’s Pond, among other improvements; this alternative would cost $108,472,500. Alternative 7a proposes modifying existing structures in Cranford to better withstand flooding by elevating them; this alternative would cost $15,543,000.

A July 17 letter from John Moyle, manager of the Bureau of Dam Safety and Flood Control at the NJDEP, however, asked the USACE to focus only on alternatives 4 and 7a. While Alternative 6, the dam option, is never mentioned in the letter, it is clear that the NJDEP is no longer backing it.

According to Aschenbach, the Mayors Council has been actively seeking federal and state funding to complete the study so as to qualify for federal appropriations that could fund approximately 65 percent of the cost of any approved project. The state would also likely share in 25 percent of the costs. In September the Mayors Council visited Washington, D.C., to urge congressional leaders to support the effort. Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, and Congressmen Leonard Lance and Donald Payne all expressed strong support for the effort.

In a recent major decision, the Mayors Council became eligible to be included in the Obama administration’s FY 2016 federal budget, according to Aschenbach. This decision puts the projects in line for federal support.

The Mayors Council will meet in early December to extend the seven communities’ interlocal agreement into 2015 in order to fund various local initiatives to further the flood-mitigation effort.