CRANFORD, NJ — The Army Corps of Engineer’s scoping meeting Monday night at Union County College did not draw the crowds expected, but in the end one thing was crystal clear: it is a long road from feasibility study to putting a shovel in the ground for a flood project.
This is the second meeting the Army Corps and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection held since May 2014 when they asked for public input about the impact of flooding on homeowners and businesses living in the Rahway River basin.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working to develop solutions to the flooding problems in Union and Essex counties with particular focus centered on Cranford and Rahway. Presently, the Army Corps is working on the Rahway River Basin Flood Risk Management Feasibility Study.
Despite the spin which elected officials continue to put on a flood project being approved quickly, the Army Corps representatives made it clear that residents living in the flood impacted area have a long wait for relief, if there is a project at all.
According to Army Corps of Engineers Project Planner Erik Peterson, it could be June 2017 before a feasibility report is ready to go before congress for approval. And that is if they find a project is feasible at all and Peterson stressed that this has not yet been determined.
The process of completing a feasibility study and then moving on through the multiple other steps required prior to seeking approval by congress, Peterson told LocalSource, is long and complicated.
In other words, he said, along the way anything could delay the process or even end it.
Army Corps Section Chief Nancy Brighton spent considerable time at the meeting going over the many steps they are required to investigate and evaluate in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
Among the laws that must be brought into the equation during the feasibility phase of any proposed flood project alternatives are various federal and state laws and acts. NEPA is considered an “umbrella law” consisting of these multiple laws and acts that must be considered in the feasibility study process.
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.
Brighton explained that flood project alternatives cannot contribute or violate any of these acts or laws.
“Under NEPA we have to investigate and describe what happens if there is or isn’t a flood project,” she said, stressing that getting through this particular portion of the study does not guarantee a Rahway River basin flood project will be approved in the end.
Peterson laid out a timeline of “milestones” the Army Corps will have to pass before any feasibility report is presented to congress.
More specifically, the Army Corps expects that by March 2016 to be able to select a technically feasible plan, “if there is a project,” and release a draft report by June 2016. After that they expect a plan will be finalized by January 2017 and then they will be able to prepare a “Chief’s Report” by June 2017.
Then and only then does the chief’s report head to congress for approval. Approval of the report, not the funding. Funding is an entirely different matter.
According to Peterson, there could be any number of hitches or problems that stall the process along the way, primarily the funding of each step required prior to congress receiving the chief’s report.
“The caveat is funding” Peterson told LocalSource in an interview after the scoping meeting, explaining again that it is important to understand “the process” and the many steps the Army Corps must satisfy before moving forward to completion of a feasibility report.
“Right now this is a 50-50 cost share between the federal government and state, but at any time the funding could be cut,” he said.
Peterson also noted that it is important to understand that any proposed flood alternative considered by the Army Corps has to be “economically and engineeringly justified.”
“We have not determined which alternative would work or if the benefit to cost ratio is worth moving forward,” Peterson said, pointing out that “there are no guarantees here.”
The Army Corp project planner said even if the Army Corps gets to present a chief’s report to congress and if the report is approved, the matter of funding could stall the project.
“After that there are design plans to be completed,” Peterson said, explaining that while the cost of a feasibility study might cost $3 million to complete, the design phase and construction phase “could run into the ten’s of millions to hundreds of millions.”
“You have to understand that the entire process is not continuous or smooth running. Moving forward can come in chunks, with delays in between because there is no funding or funding is in question,” the project planner said.
Peterson also explained to the approximately 150 residents and elected officials present at the meeting that no flood project would eliminate flooding.
“A flood project doesn’t take away the risk, it reduces the severity so people have a chance to prepare and seek safer ground,” he said, pointing out that flood safety is a “shared responsibility, and collaborative effort between federal, state, county and local officials.
Throughout the time Peterson’s spoke during the meeting, he continued to preface his statements with “if there is a project.”
“We still have to examine the hydrology, water surface, and many other factors to formulate a plan and if warranted, we select a plan to bring to congress for approval,” the project planner said.
Peterson also explained that just because a certain alternative might be “preferred” by a community or officials, does not mean it has the right benefit to cost ratio.
“If a project is found to be feasible and the benefit to cost ratio is right, then it would go to congress,” he said, adding no alternative is considered completely examined without looking at a breakdown of the hydrology and hydraulics, cost estimates, economic justification, environmental impact and social consequences.
“We’re also not going to force a flood project on a community that does not want one,’ he added, pointing out that public input continues to be an important factor in the decision making.
One of the Alternatives being considered in Cranford includes an option that would raise the Lenape embankment six-feet from its current level. Alternative 4 would require two 36-inch pipes installed that would be manually operated, along with 15,500-feet of channel improvements throughout the Rahway River in Cranford.
This would involve two bridge replacements and the removal of the Droescher and Hansel dams.
Other alternatives would make improvements or modifications to the Robinson’s Branch dam, among other improvements.