UNION COUNTY, NJ — More than a year after the catastrophic flooding of Tropical Storm Irene caused $100 million in local property damage, Union County towns are finalizing plans that would control any similar problems in the future.
After years in stasis, and through efforts by the Mayor’s Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control and the Army Corps of Engineers, the Rahway River Basin study finally received the $2 million in funding that it needed this year, said Mayor’s Council co-founder Dan Aschenbach.
And while flooding has been an issue studied in Union County towns dating back to at least 1999, Tropical Storm Irene was the straw that broke the camel’s back, said Aschenbach, that proved to people something needed to be done. The result is a proposed plan which would be funded at the federal, state and local levels.
“So Irene happened, it made a very big impact — $100 million in the various communities — and Cranford by itself had a substantial impact to 1,600 homes, a municipal building, two schools. It was quite a financial impact, and an impact on citizens,” said Aschenbach, who was the mayor of Cranford when Tropical Storm Irene hit. “Serious efforts have been made since then to get a plan into implementation. These are expensive types of projects, but they have to meet the standard of benefit-cost, meaning the cost of not doing something is greater than not.”
Of the flood mitigation efforts being planned, according to Aschenbach, 65 percent of the proposed total costs will be federally funded. The rest will be split between the state, covering 25 percent of costs, and either Union County or individual communities, who are expected to pay the remaining 10 percent.
How much will be spent in total, though, is still fluctuating, in part to convince United States Congress that the plan will have a high benefit-to-cost ratio.
Any unnecessary parts of the plan, for example, are being weeded out. The original proposal included $20 million worth of bridge replacements, said Aschenbach, and through the work of Cranford, the Mayor’s Council realized it was money they didn’t need to spend, further helping the benefit-to-cost ratio.
“The higher the ratio is, the more favorable it’s looked upon by Congress,” said Aschenbach, “and the more likely it is to get picked.”
If eventually funded, the proposed plan — which has been developed with the assistance of the Army Corps of Engineers — will prioritize efforts to limit flooding along the Rahway River, which flows through Union, Essex and Middlesex counties. The first, and arguably most important, part will take place at the upstream Orange Reservoir, said Aschenbach.
“It’s a pretty significant project that would lower water elevations from Millburn down through Rahway,” said Aschenbach. “The first component is the Orange Reservoir modification, which would permit the reservoir to be lowered or drained a day or two days before a storm. Then, it has capacity to hold stormwater. That has significant influence downstream on water elevations, during peak storm conditions. That has to be done first, before any project done downstream can be implemented.”
The Orange Reservoir modification, which Aschenbach said is expected to cost about $4 million, would have direct benefits for Millburn, Maplewood, Springfield and Union, and would also allow more work to be done downstream. If the Mayor’s Council didn’t start with the upstream storage feature, then they simply wouldn’t be able to work on downstream projects in places like Cranford.
From there, the plan calls for what’s called “channelization,” which means taking the river bottom down in different parts of the river, according to Aschenbach, which will provide more water capacity in the river. The largest water elevation reduction, which is in Cranford, is three and a half feet deep, which is “pretty substantial,” said Aschenbach.
This plan, which has been approved locally but not federally, will soon go through the congressional process in order to get appropriations. Aschenbach said that the project definitely meets the benefit-to-cost ratio required by congress, even when taking into account long-term maintenance costs, and that it was received well by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Now, added Aschenbach, the Mayor’s Council is simply refining what they’ve already evaluated, before the plan seeks approval on a national stage.
“There’s a formal date they’ve been given, but most of the communities, and the mayors of the towns, have been urging that it be done sooner rather than later. It would be best before the next storm,” said Aschenbach. “In the meantime, we’re planning to continue to raise the profile, in that this is a critical project for these communities. They don’t want to see it happen again, they want to protect residents, so it’s not going to languish, and that’s the point we’re hopefully making. The mayor’s group has an engineer and they hired a lobbyist in Washington, and they’ve been down there a few times to make the case.”
“The Mayors Council is urging the reservoir project be accelerated and constructed in 2016,” Aschenbach said.
Regardless of this desire, however, the project is still expected to involve a lengthy process. Army Corps project planner Erik Peterson has previously said it takes a long time to complete a feasibility study, have it approved by Congress and then go through the other multiple steps required.
At a public meeting in June at Union County College, Army Corps Section Chief Nancy Brighton spent a great deal of time explaining the many steps they are required to investigate and evaluate in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act. Among the laws that must be brought into the equation during the feasibility phase of any proposed flood mitigation project are various federal and state laws and acts. NEPA is considered an “umbrella law” consisting of these considerations. Included under this umbrella law is the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Environmental Justice Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Clean Air Act and any state laws that prevail, such as New Jersey Green Acres Act, Flood Area Control Act and the Fresh Water Protection Act.
While Aschenbach is optimistic about “sooner rather than later,” there is currently no timetable for when work would begin, and the project is still in the funding and feasibility stages.
Yael Katzwer, managing editor for The News Record of Maplewood and South Orange, contributed to this story.